By the 1880s, Renoir was well established and well to do. He’d already fought what he called les combats de l’impressionisme and triumphed as the impressionist with the most glamorous palette, the sunniest disposition, and the most festive eye for the passages of ordinary life that he, Degas, Manet, and Caillebotte all savored. Unlike them, he was a constant connoisseur of happiness. His 1881 Luncheon of the Boating Party — riverside table tipsy with wine, food, and flowers; revelers bridging social classes, from swells in top hats and frock coats to rivermen in straw stingy-brims and T-shirts; lively flirtations (including one between a redhead and her pooch) slouching throughout the scene — has become a poster image for la belle époque that would crash during Renoir’s lifetime with the outbreak of the Great War.
During the 1880s he got impatient with Impressionism’s fleet “touch” and its tousled, snatched-from-life effects. Like most great artists, Renoir comes out of predecessors, and to refresh himself after “Impressionism’s wars” he looked back to the staginess of 18th-century French painting and to Boucher in particular. One would think Renoir had already gotten as rosy as it gets without adding Boucher’s flouncy pastoral and boudoir beatitudes, but in Boucher’s azure zephyrs and peaches-and-cream complexions Renoir saw a stolid contentment he aspired to. By the 1890s, his passion for Rubens and for the classical modeling and sumptuous interiors of the 16th-century Venetians (Veronese and Titian in particular) was helping Renoir achieve a riper representation of the female form and a more compact theatricality of interior spaces.
Toward the end of the century, he made two major moves. Advised by doctors in 1897 to seek a warmer climate for his increasingly debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, he moved to Cagnes in the south of France. He also pretty much gave up painting en plein air and moved indoors. (He now created what he called the “outdoors in the studio.”) Most of the pictures from this period are interiors that showcase females: children, adolescents, and adults, nude and clothed, performing domestic tasks such as sewing or tending children or sharing parlor pastimes such as reading and music-making. Renoir’s friend and intellectual companion, the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, so admired the 1892 Young Girls at the Piano — the girls’ languid concentration blends into their buttery physiques — that he persuaded the French government to acquire it. Renoir, in turn, was interested in Mallarmé’s poetics, which preferred evocation to denotation, obliquity to directness, rhapsodic illusion to hard reality, and he translated Symbolist poetry’s mercurial syntax, its mystery-flow, into swooning pictorial reverie.
The later paintings beam and beckon, and they’re lightheaded with Renoir’s enthusiasm for his motifs. This isn’t the same as being lightheaded about his models. (“It’s the painter who makes the model,” he said.) Another poet, Rilke, wrote in 1906 that certain artists, Cézanne most of all, drain personal affection from their work. A Cézanne picture doesn’t say, “I love this”; it says, “Here it is.” Cézanne leaves the love out. Renoir leaves it all in, leaves in a love for his self-induced vision of the feminine. If you’re slain with pleasure by the corpulent big-hipped torsos, petite heads, and brightly flushed cheeks of women in Renoir’s late work, read no further and go directly to Renoir in the Twentieth Century, currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a ravishing exhibition that tracks Renoir’s practice from 1890 till his death in 1919. But if you have misgivings about the look of the feminine in Renoir’s later work, stay with me a while, and allow me a digression.
Personal taste is irrational, visceral, appetitive, and so always a little mysterious. Mostly, though, taste is judgment. As a young man taking in the suave, shimmying color of Renoir’s later work — some of his choicest things are in my hometown, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art — to me his women pictures, the nudes in particular, were astonishments (with a hubba-hubba element). Over the years, as I’ve revisited his work and soaked up the art of his contemporaries, my feeling for the work changed, and in the LACMA exhibition those same Philadelphia pictures look redundant, mannered, self-pleasuring. Renoir’s fields of flesh now look like massive drapery, and those pert girlie heads mounted on broadened, mature, Titian-esque bodies look sweetly grotesque.
The exhibition includes work by contemporaries who admired and learned from Renoir. In the room containing two Renoir pictures of nudes bathing — his sinuous color-streams rush and roil from long swept-back hair into background fog and bath sheets wetly pasted to skin — my eye kept being snapped away from them to a 1912 Bonnard, Woman at the Window. Bonnard’s wife’s lean figure fills half the frame; a slash of vermillion peignoir droops from her vanity. She stands, legs apart, looking out the window, turned away indifferently from the painter’s gaze — she’s not being adoringly served up to us. The picture doesn’t announce a painterly program. It deftly enacts the struggle to still the movements of the artist’s inner life (as it reflects not only on the feminine but on reality and the forms that mediate and load with passion the zone between feeling and reality) in the stilled movements of line and color. Bonnard isn’t enshrining the feminine for pious male ardor, he’s prying into and dismantling Renoir’s nouveau classical ideals. Renoir’s bathers say, “Look at us.” Bonnard’s picture says, “Watch me.” Woman at the Window teaches us to see carnality afresh, moving our eye from one unpredictable passage to another as if to remind us that the feminine isn’t a totem, it’s a delicately tentative work in progress. Bonnard’s hand teases out a provisional vision. Renoir’s is taking dictation from a mail-order Aphrodite. Stretched, faintly marbled rotundities of flesh monumentalize virtually every female image Renoir made after 1890. That’s exactly what he intended. I don’t question the gorgeous execution and beauty-on-demand effect. I question his vision of the feminine.
Some of the last pictures are Renoir’s finest. Whatever one’s misgivings, a few of the nudes achieve a pastel ethereality and veiled-ness that make those bulky bodies look afloat in bower or bed. And he made other sorts of pictures. The 1905 landscape, Terrace at Cagnes, bristles with an exploratory feverishness: bushy clusters and twiggy trees surround a small red figure sitting on a terrace; behind her, hillside houses shove each other high in the picture toward a sliding blue sky. And in the more naturalistic work — a society couple, a young man hunting, a youth in Pierrot costume — the compositional weave of setting and garments and skin shakes looser than ever. Terrace at Cagnes’s bright palette recalls Impressionism’s salad days, but in Renoir’s best late pictures old age brought a restorative darkening, the way a great singing voice darkens with age, especially in his rendering of women playing instruments, which 20 years earlier had been his coziest subject. With the more shadowed tonality, the pictures gain an animated reflectiveness, a small nervousness of mind that give them a mildly quaking intensity we don’t associate with Renoir. He liked to say that painting was “made to beautify,” and in the soberly gorgeous painting The Concert, one of his last pictures, whirlpooling textures sweep and tumble together roses, wallpaper, mandolin, hair scarves, liquid gowns, and necklines that look like gulf shores defining the women’s dreamy topographies. It invites us to lose ourselves. Life and aging brought Renoir a hard march of physical suffering — there are films of him painting with a brush tied to his crippled arthritic hand — but he was a poet of joy to the end, and even if we don’t share the joy or admire its style of representation, we have to recognize that that’s what it is.
Renoir in the Twentieth Century
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles
Through Sunday, May 9. For additional information, call 323-857-6000 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org.