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Pierre-Auguste Renoir

by N.F. Karlins
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The Frick Collection has organized another of its remarkable small exhibitions. This one, however, contains remarkably big works. “Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting,” on view through May 13, 2012, features nine full-length figural canvases by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), all of them shimmering with Impressionist light and feathery brushstrokes. The imposing dimensions of the figures is at odds with what we usually think of as the small scale of Impressionist oils.

Their great size recalls the grand machine of the Salon, which Renoir, the most reluctant of Impressionists, and his colleagues -- Monet, Degas, Pissarro, Caillebotte and Cézanne -- attempted to counter with exhibitions of their own. Renoir, however, still revered the Salon, and kept sending paintings to be shown there; in fact, Renoir only exhibited alongside his fellow Impressionists of his own volition three times, and once because his dealer entered his paintings in their show against his wishes.

The splendid canvases at the Frick, with their high-keyed palette and dashing brushwork, mark the height of Renoir’s involvement with Impressionism and the figure. In The Dancer (1874), Renoir whips up a marvelous tutu, which the eponymous subject brushes aside, handkerchief in hand, as she prepares to step onstage. In the same way she examines herself, we are invited to examine her. There’s a bit of voyeurism in this conceit, but this pretty “petit rat de l’opera” bravely meets our gaze with complete self-possession.

The Frick’s heady canvases should delight not only lovers of Impressionism but will also appeal to fashionistas and those who appreciate paintings of cute kids. Clothing of all kinds fascinated Renoir, who was born to a tailor and a seamstress (friends noted that he especially adored hats). Frothy dresses, soigné gowns, male clothing, both formal and informal, and costumes for the stage, all receive careful treatment.

The Frick’s own La Promenade (1875-76) is as charming as it is ambitious. Two little girls in matching green-blue outfits trimmed in white mink or swan’s down, their heads crowned by lovely bonnets, seem about to enter the viewer’s space, ushered towards us by another female who is only slightly older and just as well-dressed. Add to this group eight more figures in the background, plus two small dogs in a gestural, loosely painted park setting, and the result is a sunny evocation of Parisian living.

Renoir was adept at capturing children in paint. The little girls in Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando (Francisca and Angelina Wartenberg) (1879) are no exception. Clad in white satin costumes with gold trimmings, the two girls gather up oranges, which were customarily thrown to young performers by audience members in a show of appreciation. Professional in demeanor, the pair is firmly rooted in the circus ring, with much attention paid to their golden boots. Cirque Fernando also inspired works by Renoir’s fellow painters Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, but Renoir’s immense sympathy for his young subjects makes this canvas most endearing.

A trio of spectacular paintings, Dance in the City, Dance in the Country and Dance at Bougival, shows couples dancing. This subject affords Renoir an opportunity to show off masculine styles as well as feminine ones. In each painting, the motion of a dance is evoked -- the flying tails of a gentleman’s dress coat in the city, the fallen straw hat and sweep of the printed dress in the country, and the flare of the pink-ruffled cotton dress at Bougival, as the male partner in blue sweater and hat pulls his lady towards him, perhaps attempting a kiss.

By 1881, Renoir was in the midst of a crisis about his work. He had some money for the first time in his career, and he visited Italy to study the Old Masters. The Umbrellas, probably begun around 1881 before Renoir left France and finished about 1885, exemplifies his rapprochement with traditional painting in subtle ways. The difference in facture between the two sides of the painting is stark. The fashionably attired mother and two daughters on the right are brighter, but more thickly painted, than the less elaborately dressed “modiste,” or milliner’s assistant, who carries a hat box on the left.

It is easy to see that modes of fashion had changed drastically between Renoir’s initial attack on the right in 1881 and his return to the work on the left in 1885. Although the attire of the figures may look the same to us today, those on the right would have appeared out-of-date compared to those on the left. The painting is also split by class, depicting the life of the affluent on the right and the modest life of the modiste on the left. Yet the overlapping umbrellas, a motif that Renoir’s friend Caillebotte had used to great effect, manages to unify the oil.

By the mid-1880s, full-length figure studies of this type were gone from Renoir’s oeuvre. Later in his career, he still produced large canvases in his signature light brushwork, but these were monumental Rubenesque nudes with heavy bodies and smallish heads. We are exceedingly lucky to have these nine Impressionistic full-length paintings assembled in one room at the Frick.

As part of a new media initiative at the Frick, a short introductory video to the exhibition and four very short videos on particular paintings are available at the museum and online at  

“Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting,” Feb. 7-May 13, 2012, Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.

NANCY KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.