Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side, once did a cartoon that showed a grizzled old cowpoke lifting a coffeepot from the campfire. Though at first glance both the poke and the pot appear to be standard cattle-drive issue, upon closer inspection the pot has some funny-looking spouts and attachments. And neither does this turn out to be your stereotypical cowpunch. "Latte, Jed?" he asks a companion.

For nearly 25 years, those who call North Texas home have come to regard Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum as our own sleek little espresso maker, dispensing culture out here on the range. The museum is the legacy of Kay Kimbell, a minor collector of mostly western and British art and a major Fort Worth businessman who in 1964 left his entire estate to "[b]uild a museum of the first class" in Cowtown.

In less capable hands, this mission could easily have become the stuff of satire. But early on, those charged with carrying out Kimbell's legacy lit on a strategy: They would be a small museum and spend only on the best, acquiring only works of "definitive quality"--that is, art that could be said to "[define] a master, period, school, style or area," according to the museum's self-published hagiography, In Pursuit of Quality: The Kimbell Art Museum.

In practice, this meant buying Old Masters. It was a shrewd strategy for building a collection, one that flew in the face of what most other museums born in the second half of the 20th century were collecting. And it paid off by quickly establishing the Kimbell's reputation. Of course it also brought astonishing treasures to our neck of the prairie: Masterpieces from late Gothic to Modernism hang in the Kimbell's Louis Kahn-designed barrel vaults.

Mind you, this isn't New York City's Frick Collection; you can't really get a sense of the continuity of artistic schools or traditions, a shortfall that makes it hard to comprehend, say, how Caravaggio's style presented a radical departure from a hundred mannerist painters of the day. But the Kimbell has long atoned for this shortfall with relatively boosterism-free exhibitions and education. For years the Kimbell seemed to favor scholarship over spinning turnstiles, and the result was superb crema.

This history only serves to make the Kimbell's recent Impressionist binge--of which Renoir's Portraits: Impressions of an Age, running February 8 through April 26, is the latest episode--all the more puzzling. As the London Financial Times noted this January, "[e]ach year, one marvels at the American ingenuity in exploring yet another angle on the Impressionists." Granted, it's impossible to overstate the art-historical importance of Impressionism, the moment when painting left representation behind; then, too, our British cousins have never shared Americans' mania for the school. Yet after two decades of nonstop Impressionist exhibitions, they're beginning to look like the highbrow equivalent of the Eagles' Reunion Tour, a cynical means of using the safe and familiar to draw in the rubes.

To be sure, it hasn't all been dreck. The Kimbell's 1994 show, Impressionist Masterpieces from the Barnes Collection, was a must-see. And if Monet and the Mediterranean, the Kimbell's 1997 foray into the land of Impressionism, was a bit of pandering to the masses, it was arguably justifiable, Claude Monet being not only the father of Impressionism, but the godfather of abstraction as well. Even last fall's mini-show, Impressionists and Modern Masterpieces: The Rudolf Staechlin Family Foundation Collection of Basel, Switzerland, can be explained, if not excused, on the grounds that all museums toady up to potential donors.

But now, just when it seemed safe to venture back into the barrel vaults, we're served up another dose of the world's most fawned-over school of painting. And the rationalization is pretty thin; basically, they're doing it because it's an angle on Impressionism that hasn't been done.

"Despite 20 years of Impressionist exhibitions and scholarship, it's surprising how little is known about Renoir," says Charles Stuckey, the Kimbell's curator of Impressionist painting. "There's so little hard information about him." Indeed, the last exhibition of Renoir's portraits took place in 1912, and the only survey of his work in recent memory is the 1985 Boston show.

Of course this begs a critical question. Yes, Renoir is the least picked-over corner of the Impressionist world, art history's answer to James Fenimore Cooper studies. But why?

"It's a good question," says Stuckey, who suggests Renoir was "rather naive" in the ways of creating posthumous fame. He theorizes that since the '60s, art-world critics have favored "tough art instead of old-fashioned art." He touches upon the schmaltz factor: "That's all [Renoir's work] is, sentimental. And 'sentimental' today is derogatory." Stuckey even suggests that this is due in part to feminist scholarship, because of feminist quibbles over the way he portrayed women.

If Renoir's Portraits had explored any of these arguments, it might have made for a better show--but first, it would have had to acknowledge The Problem of Renoir. And this is where Renoir's Portraits fails to come clean with its audience. For Pierre-Auguste Renoir is a troublesome art-historical figure. Aside from Monet, no painter was more critical to the evolution of Impressionism. And as the Kimbell's show reveals, he had enormous talent. At the same time, however, Renoir's Portraits also demonstrates the troubling aspects of his work: the wild inconsistency, the addiction to the saccharine, the vapid mythologizing.

In candid moments, even those with personal stakes in promoting Renoir's legend will fess up. "It's too bad about Renoir," sighed a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, where the Renoir show camped before journeying to Fort Worth. "His son was a great artist." This comes from an employee of the largest lender to the show. Indeed, in some circles, Renoir constitutes a basic taste-and-intelligence test: the art-historical equivalent of sussing out whether someone owns a Barry Manilow CD or votes for Ross Perot.

Here's a clue to Renoir's importance: The Kimbell doesn't even own a Renoir. (Remember the definitive-excellence-only rule?) Despite the fact that Renoir claimed to have sold more than 3,000 canvases during his lifetime, excellence in Renoir's case is exceedingly rare and outrageously pricey. Renoir currently holds the distinction of having painted the second-highest-priced canvas ever to sell at auction; in 1990 his La Moulin de la Galette went to a Japanese businessman for $78.1 million.

But the show, which was organized by Colin Bailey, the Kimbell's former head curator, doesn't discuss this, or any of a thousand other fascinating riddles surrounding Renoir. For we are living in an age of play-it-safe museum shows, shows that have purposes other than to ask provocative questions. Perhaps as a result, Renoir's Portraits contents itself with doing basic detective work into the identities of sitters and what Stuckey calls "the business of being an artist."

Oh, sure, Bailey tackles a few of the little problems, like when is a portrait not a portrait and whether Renoir solved certain "aesthetic paradoxes" supposedly inherent in portrait-painting (to no one's surprise, they claim he did). Of course the audience isn't really supposed to trouble its head with these koans, as evidenced by the fact that most of the notes to the catalog and even quotations in the text are untranslated from the French. Not that the English is any easier to decipher. "Nowhere is the precarious relationship between the conventional and the progressive, between the (largely) conservative expectations of a bourgeoise clientele and (largely) destabilizing ambitions of an impressionist figure painter, of such pressing importance as in Renoir's portraiture." Translation: The clients who commissioned Renoir wanted old-fashioned flattery; Renoir offered newfangled flattery but also needed to eat. They compromised. Now this way to the gift store, please.

"Seated, he is a frightful spectacle, elbows clamped to his sides, forearms raised...shaking two sinister stumps dangling with threads and ribbons."

So wrote art dealer-diarist Rene Gimpel in 1918, after visiting the 77-year-old Renoir. Then in the last year of his life, Renoir was famously decrepit; the stumps were arthritic hands, their fingers "pressed in and spread against the the claws of a chicken plucked and trussed ready for the spit," Gimpel wrote. (Renoir's nurse/model explained how the artist nevertheless managed to paint--not to mention smoke: "I place the brushes between his fingers and fasten them with...strings and ribbons" she explained. "Sometimes they fall, and I put them back.")

Despite these indignities, Gimpel found the old bird mentally undiminished. He had outlived most of his enemies and procured a new generation of wealthy American friends. They included Mrs. Potter Palmer (whose collection eventually formed the core of the Art Institute of Chicago), Mrs. Henry O. Havemeyer (whose collection eventually went to New York's Metropolitan Museum), and countless lesser tycoons. Consequently, by 1918 the dealers were involved in madcap attempts to beg, buy, or steal his canvases--a pastime that prompted Gimpel's own pilgrimage to the house of Renoir.

As Gimpel reports, by this time Renoir was considered a great master, though his canvases still brought less than Monet's, Edouard Manet's, or Edgar Degas'. Renoir emerges as a sympathetic figure, a trustworthy friend, and, in contrast to Charles Stuckey's suggestion, a shrewd businessman. (When Gimpel asked the Impressionist dealer Durand-Ruel whether Monet was well-off, Durand-Ruel replied that Monet was "much less so than Renoir, who alone [among the Impressionists] is really rich." He was also refreshingly unsentimental about the Impressionists' achievements.

"It was chance," Renoir told Gimpel, reflecting on the beginnings of Impressionism in the mid-19th century. "There was a Swiss in Paris, Gleyre, who had a very cheap class in drawing. And there I met Monet, Sisley, Bazille. It was our mutual poverty that brought us together...Each of us on his own wouldn't have had the strength or the courage, or even the idea."

Indeed, Renoir's life presents a series of critical art-history lessons, such as the importance of being in the right place at the right time.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born in 1841 in the province of Limoges, in western France. The fifth of six children born to a tailor and a dressmaker, Renoir's parents moved the family to Paris when Renoir was 4. Pierre-Auguste's brother reports that the painter's education ended at 15, when he was apprenticed to a china painter. Renoir plied this trade until he was 18, in his spare time taking whatever free classes in drawing and painting he could find. Eventually one of Renoir's teachers advised his parents to "let [your] son become a proper painter. In our trade he may at the most earn 12 or 15 francs. I predict a brilliant future for him in the world of art. See what you can do."

What they did was enroll him at Gleyre's atelier in November 1861. Colin Bailey's notes on Forty-Three Portraits of Painters in Gleyre's Atelier reveal that Renoir was no artistic prodigy, consistently ranking near the bottom of his class. Yet while the early canvases in the Kimbell's exhibit do show a certain difficulty painting decipherable backgrounds, by and large they are amazingly strong. As they reveal, Renoir was essentially a mockingbird, trying on and then discarding various "modern" styles. Thus his 1863 painting of The Inn at Mere-Antony owes much to Courbet, while The Artist's Brother, Pierre-Henri Renoir mimics the Pre-Raphaelites.

During this period, Renoir had a series of early successes at the Salon, the sometimes annual, sometimes semiannual state-sponsored exhibition of French painting. His Portrait of William Sisley (1864), in the Kimbell's show, was one of a series of early paintings that were accepted for exhibition at the Salon. And as the catalogue points out, these early successes helped Renoir garner enough portrait commissions to keep himself in paint and brushes for the two decades it took him to find a regular dealer. (Renoir was the last Impressionist to be taken on by Paul Durand-Ruel, the legendary Parisian dealer, who did not begin regularly buying Renoir's canvases until 1881.)

As Renoir told Gimpel, this era of his life gained him not only classical training and commissions, but most importantly a peer group. And in one of those fortunate accidents of timing, Renoir and his friends found themselves in what was then the epicenter of the art world, at the precise moment when conditions were ripe for painting to take a dramatic historical turn.

Since 1648, when one of Louis XIV's ministers organized the state art academy (later the Ecole des Beaux Arts) in an effort to transform French painters from mere artisans to intellectuals, French art had evolved into a strictly academic and hierarchical style. To keep the next generation in line, the establishment employed the usual carrot-and-stick method, the carrot being the Prix de Rome, awarded yearly to the most promising (read: conventional) up-and-coming French painters. The prize was nothing to sniff at: an all-expense paid trip to Rome to study and paint at the Beaux Arts' school in the Villa Medici. Of course, with it came the trimmings--clients, renown, state purchases for the Louvre.

The stick was in turn supplied by critics and the public, who cared desperately about art, intellectuals having long been to France what football stars are to the United States. Like the critics, the bourgeoisie were essentially conservative, eager to torture innovators for the requisite three or four decades it then took for the avant-garde to become the establishment. Under these tacit conditions, the French avant-garde thrived. The generation before the Impressionists--the so-called men of 1830, today known as the Barbizon school--rebelled by painting realistic scenes from nature, rather than the historical and literary allegories then deemed fit subjects for painting.

If the resulting scenes of nature and peasants laboring in the field weren't exactly Piss Christ, they did show the cruelty of nature and the rawness of real life, and in their time were considered scandalous. They in turn enormously influenced the Impressionists, not only encouraging them to choose modern life as their subject, but also paving the way for their Quixotic quest to capture nature and sunlight on canvas.

Bless his heart, Renoir tried. From the early 1860s through the late '70s he tagged along with his cohorts to paint outdoors in an effort to capture the true effects of sunlight. The Kimbell's show contains many of these efforts, from Claude Monet Painting in his Garden at Argenteuil (1874) to The Daughters of Paul Durand-Ruel (1882). Even his portraits set indoors during this high-Impressionist period feature the loosely brushed and daubed style that drove the French bonkers.

But Renoir was the most ironic of modernists. Though he frequented the laboratories of modernism--the Cafe Guerbois, the forest of Fontainebleau and the places where middle-class Parisians spent their leisure--a part of him was never wholly dedicated to the venture. He was never, for example, obsessed with presenting "truth." Profoundly conservative, a part of Renior was none too comfortable with reality. He liked myth. He secretly admired the 18th-century French Rococo, especially the fantastic and idealized work of painters like Antoine Watteau and Francois Boucher. "I am of the 18th century," he later explained to Gimpel.

It is ironic, then, that Renoir's claim to fame is based upon Impressionism, which struggled to paint with the eye rather than the mind. But Renoir didn't much fancy nature as a subject. "I am classified as a painter of figure, and quite rightly," Renoir told Gimpel in 1918, a year before the painter's death. "My landscapes are nothing but accessories."

And when life wasn't pretty enough in Renoir's view, he made it so--an error in judgment that explains the fictitious cotton-candy femmes and china-doll children sprinkled throughout the Kimbell's show. As Renoir told art dealer Ambroise Vollard, "For me, a picture should be something likeable, joyous, and pretty--yes, pretty. There are enough ugly things in life for us not to add to them."

Unfortunately, the Kimbell's show isn't above a little mythmaking of its own. "By 1900," we are told, "Renoir's works, both early and late, had become as expensive--or even more so--than paintings by any other living artist, with collectors competing to own them," according to the Kimbell. This statement, made without support, is a neat bit of revisionist history that flies in the face of a great deal of recent scholarly detective work.

Noting that Renoir "pos[ed] friends in modern narratives that gave the illusion of being direct transcriptions of everyday life," Bailey's essay extols the "affection" and "tenderness" of these portraits. And neither was our hero a snob, it seems: "[T]he children of petit bourgeois clerks and shopkeepers are as commanding as the pampered offspring of provincial senators...It is this immensely reassuring and utopian vision of a shared and harmonious society that sets Renoir apart." A regular man of the people, that Pierre-Auguste.

It's a selective bunch of hooey. Though urban-improvement programs had made things comfy for the Parisian middle class, they had pushed the workers into shantytowns on the outskirts of town. And as the Dreyfus affair would show, even wealth could not guarantee security for Jewish residents in the City of Light. (In 1894, rabid French antisemitism resulted in the arrest and conviction of one Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a wealthy French Jew, on charges of espionage. Though Dreyfus was wrongly accused, the French military covered up evidence of its mistake. Eventually the affair blossomed into a Watergate-type scandal that brought down the French royalists, exposed French antisemitism, and generally split the country. Renoir was in the anti-Dreyfusard camp.)

Bailey's not-a-snob comment does, however, hint at the reason Renoir was a second-class painter: He had a hopelessly second-class mind. Possessed of the eye of an artist and the soul of a peasant from Limoges, he did not lack the ability to discern good from bad; he simply lacked the judgment to choose correctly. He had utter contempt for the truth, not only in terms of what he saw but in terms of conveying larger truths about life. As a result, Renoir is an artist in the small sense, that of deceiving or being artful.

This is not to say he lacked wit; many of the canvases contain painterly in-jokes. But Renoir disliked intellectualism of any sort. Not surprisingly, he wasn't that good at thinking. Like the geezers who pine for the good old days, conveniently forgetting the bit about chamber pots and gas lamps, Renoir was too often addled by a sappy reverence for the past.

Similarly, Renoir's pronouncements on art, posthumously recorded by his son, the filmmaker Jean Renoir, sound like "Deep Thoughts" from Saturday Night Live's Jack Handey:

"Go and look at what others have produced, but copy only nature itself. If you copy you are assuming a creative personality which is not your own. Nothing that you did would ever be your own.

"Young people should be trained to see things for themselves and not always seek guidance.

"Painters on porcelain only copy the work of others..."
"It's all very well to be sentimental about the past. Of course I regret the passing of hand-colored plates...of the days when every craftsman could use his imagination, and put something of himself into every object he made..."

Given his shortcomings as a theorist, perhaps it's no surprise that subjects for which Renoir cared least were his most successful. Renoir was a better painter of landscapes than of men, and with few exceptions--one being his psychologically astute First Portrait of Madame Georges Charpentier--a better painter of men than of women. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in comparing two portraits that hang close together in the show: the portrait of Charles Le Coeur and that of Madame Henriot. The former captures many aspects of the sitter: his savvy, dandyism, vanity, sophistication. The latter is pure fiction, a fantasy of a woman that conveys nothing of the sitter's considerable drive and ambition. Psychologically opaque, it is fit only for selling skin cream--a use to which it was put.

Worst of all are Renoir's wretchedly sentimentalized children, which the Kimbell has lumped together in a single room of the show. Renoir started out well enough, as demonstrated by his 1864 portrait of Mademoiselle Romain Lacaux. Yet from this early pinnacle, with a few notable exceptions, the portraits of children go straight downhill, until, by the late '70s, Renoir's children have assumed the saccharine mien of china dolls. (Indeed, the Kimbell even displays the doll many were modeled after.)

These flaws mar the famous Impressionist works in the Kimbell's show, such as the Art Institute's Two Sisters (On the Terrace). In this undeniably beautiful picture, bursting with jewel tones and ambition, Renoir's portrait of the older sister skillfully walks the tightrope between flattery and representation. And then--sacre bleu!--one focuses on the younger girl, who has the too-dominant eyes and the too-small rosebud mouth of Franklin Mint dolls. The painter who would thus destroy his own masterpiece should be hung in effigy instead of in the Art Institute.

Protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, this show is at least as much about promoting a popular legend as promoting scholarship. And it's too bad, because it would have been easy to have one's Renoir and one's integrity too. The organizers of this exhibition could have justified a dozen angles for the show: Was Renoir a proto-Pop artist? How about Renoir and Picasso? Renoir and Rauschenberg? Here's an interesting high/low comparison: Renoir and Norman Rockwell.

Unfortunately, none of these shows seems likely anytime soon. For we live in the most Darwinian of museum eras, an age when too many exhibition-hungry museums, all built to put some midsized metropolis "on the cultural map," compete for too little underwriting and aging cultural consumers. And these are factors that lead to scholarly timidity. In this age of box office Yber alles, even the Kimbell is in no mood to be provocative.

Indeed, the Kimbell is a case study in what the safe, straightforward Impressionist blockbuster can do for a museum. During the late '80s, the Kimbell did a series of shows that drew critical acclaim but relatively small audiences. The Kimbell's 1988 show of the French 17th-century painter Poussin, which drew rave reviews for groundbreaking scholarship, drew approximately 85,000 visitors. According to Wendy Gottlieb, a spokesman for the Kimbell, during the late '80s, the Kimbell's membership "was fluctuating between 5,000 and 6,000 members." On the eve of the 1994 Barnes exhibition, the membership was still "about 6,000."

In three months, the 430,000 visitors to the Barnes exhibition resulted in 150 percent increase in the Kimbell's membership. "During Barnes it almost tripled, going from about 6,000 to 15,000," says Gottlieb. Though a mere 330,000 came to last year's Monet exhibition, the membership took another quantum leap; now, on the eve of Renoir, it hovers at about 26,000.

While the Kimbell declines to say how many visitors it expects Renoir to lure (at the Art Institute, the show brought in nearly 500,000), they do say they expect Renoir to take these figures even higher. "Exhibitions always drive membership," Gottlieb says. And there does seem to have been some spillover effect; even the numbers for Old Masters shows have climbed. Last year's La Tour show brought in 113,000 visitors. "That was very well attended for an Old Master show that was up in the winter," Gottlieb notes. "La Tour is not a household name."

As the numbers indicate, one can make the case that the Kimbell's Impressionist shows are expanding the base of cultural consumers. But there's a real side of cynicism to this argument, since it assumes that you can't give the people what they want and something to think about too.

Renoir's Portraits is in no danger of changing the scholarly wisdom on Renoir, mostly because they would have had to deal with it honestly in the first place. Instead, the show's curators argue the merits of even his worst work.

As Renoir's Portraits makes clear, by 1881 Renoir had grown dissatisfied with Impressionism. With the security that Durand-Ruel's support provided, Renoir toured Italy and Algiers. It was then that Renoir began to develop his own mature style.

Influenced by Renaissance masters, as well as by the French Rococo he so admired, Renoir ceased to paint the history of the French bourgeoisie and instead began his "classical" phase. By the late 1880s, Renoir had virtually ceased to paint commissioned portraits. His models were his family and friends, whom he frequently placed in narrative fantasies such as Young Shepherd in Repose (Alexander Thurneyssen). It was during this period, too, that Renoir began painting an endless series of blowsy nudes, which the curators have not seen fit to include although they were the primary focus of Renoir's later years. (Bailey's essay does mention the nudes; he quotes the painter Mary Cassatt "insensitively" dissing them.)

Of course, such doubts about Renoir's work are unlikely to stop the occupants of faux-Georgian suburban homesteads from storming the Kimbell. At $10 a head they will come, sallying forth from security-gated 'burbs to soak up the middle class' idea of culture. And well they should. For Renoir is a veritable Homer of suburbia, an artist who raises the banal to the heroic.

Not to mention that the mugs and prints go so well with the sofa. Too bad; the Kimbell could have sent them home with something to think about.

Head 'em up. Move 'em out.


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