Of human bodies: new exhibit at Clark Art Institute showcases Renoir’s focus on the nude 

  • “Bather Arranging Her Hair,” oil on canvas, 1885. Shown above at far right, “The Bathers,” oil on canvas, 1918-19. One of the last paintings Renoir ever made, its depiction of women was controversial in its time. Image courtesy Clark Art Insitute

  • “Young Girl Bathing, oil on canvas, 1892. Image courtesy Clark Institute/Metropolitan Museum of Art

  • Center, “Bathers” (Study for “The Great Bathers”), chalk on wove paper lined to canvas, 1884-87.

  • “Boy with a Cat,” oil on canvas, 1868. Photo by Patrice Schmidt/courtesy Musée d'Orsay.

  • “Two Reclining Nudes,” oil on canvas, 1968 by Pablo Picasso, a great admirer of Renoir.  Courtesy Clark Art Institute/Nahmad Collection

  • “Two Figures (After the Bath, Neither White nor Black),” oil on cardboard, 1909 by Suzanne Valadon. Courtesy Clark Art Institute/ Centre Pompidou

  • “Seated Bather,” oil on canvas, 1883-84. Courtesy Clark Art Institute/Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum

  • “Little Blue Nude,” oil on canvas,1878-79. This work was part of what art historians call Renoir’s involvement in the “decorative tradition” of painting.

Staff Writer
Published: 6/26/2019 4:03:39 PM

Monet had his water lilies, haystacks and rugged cliffs. Degas had his ballerinas. Pissarro had his rural laborers, Sisley his seascapes and riverine scenes.

Among the other major Impressionists, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was known for his portraits of women and girls and his scenes of people in social settings, such as “Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette” from 1876 and “Luncheon of the Boating Party” from 1881. Yet also central to his work was the female nude, a subject he turned to throughout his career, through a number of stylistic changes.

At the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, a new exhibit takes a close look at Renoir’s study of the human figure as a source of his artistic inspiration. With some 70 paintings, drawings and other artwork by Renoir and some of his contemporaries and mentors, “Renoir: The Body, The Senses” draws on 43 different lenders, while also making use of the Clark’s considerable collection of Renoir works.

“Renoir was [museum founder Sterling Clark’s] favorite painter,” Esther Bell, the Clark’s chief curator and a co-curator of the new exhibit, said during a tour of the show earlier this month. This year is the 100th anniversary of Renoir’s death, Bell added, “so it made sense to look at his work as a whole, and through this particular lens.”

Indeed, the exhibit showcases some of Renoir’s earliest work — he was born in 1841 in Limoges, in southwestern France — as well as a selection of some of his last paintings, made during World War One, when he needed assistance to paint because of advanced arthritis in his hands.

Bell and the exhibit co-curator, George Shackelford, deputy director of The Kimbell Art Museum in Forth Worth, Texas, say Renoir was heavily influenced by earlier painters working in the grand classical tradition, such as the 18th-century French painter François Boucher and Peter Paul Rubens, the 17th-century Flemish artist.

One of the first works in the exhibit, in fact, is a partially finished copy Renoir made in 1861 of Rubens’ “The Council of the Gods,” a painting from the early 1620s that depicts numerous nude and semi-clad figures — the mythical gods of Mount Olympus — from Ancient Greece.

Renoir, Shackelford said, “sees Rubens as a master of the human form. He was a big influence” on Renoir, as was another French painter, Eugène Delacroix, the Romantic era artist.

And for Renoir, the nude — primarily the female nude — was the bread and butter of his work, one of the most “indispensable forms of art,” as he told his friend Berthe Morisot, an Impressionist painter. “In all honesty, what I love to paint the most is the nude woman,” he once said.

In 1870, Renoir had his first painting — a female nude — accepted by the Paris Salon, the leading arbiter of art in France at the time. “He wants his style to succeed with the public and the officially sanctioning body [the Paris Salon], and he does it with a traditional subject,” said Bell.

Yet Renoir had also become friends with Monet and other Impressionist painters and consequently began to experiment with different ways of depicting light on his canvasses. His “Study. Torso of a Woman in the Sunlight,” from 1875-76, shows a loosely defined female bather dappled in shadow and light, with a background of an almost tropical array of colors, all of it painted in broad strokes.

Some reviewers loved the work, Bell noted, while German-French art critic Albert Wolff savaged it: “Would someone kindly explain to M. Renoir that a woman’s torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh with the green and purplish blotches that indicate a state of complete putrefaction in a corpse?” 

Changing styles

The Clark exhibit juxtaposes Renoir’s nude paintings and drawings, pastels and other works with selected art by some of his friends and contemporaries, such as Edgar Degas and Paul Cézanne, showing how the artists influenced one another. The exhibit also includes a number of bronze and terracotta sculptures — mostly of nude figures — that Renoir created in his later years with an assistant, when his arthritis limited him to designing the work (his assistant physically manipulated the materials).

During their exhibit tour, Bell and Shackelford noted that Renoir’s painting changed again in the 1880s after he made his first trip to Italy to study the work of Italian Renaissance painters. Believing by that point that he had “wrung Impressionism dry,” as he put it, Renoir now began imbuing his nudes with the qualities long noted as his trademarks: female bathers with long, glossy hair, rounded faces, exposed breasts and soft stomachs, with towels or robes partly covering their legs; they’re often posed in Arcadian settings, possibly as a response to the growing industrialism of the era.

Paintings such as “Blonde Bather II,” from 1882-83, and “Bather Arranging Her Hair,” from 1885, combine the more clearly defined figures of classical painting with a somewhat gauzy, sensual skin tone, as well as more Impressionistic background colors and brushstrokes.

A highlight of the Clark exhibition is a separate area devoted to many preliminary drawings and figure studies Renoir did, mostly chalk on paper, in preparation for creating “The Great Bathers,” a large painting he worked on between 1884-87. “This collection of materials has not been shown together for many years,” said Bell. “It really shows that Impressionism was not just a spontaneous exercise … it wasn’t all plein air painting and immediacy.”

Renoir shifted gears again in the 1890s and early 1900s, creating new paintings offering “a kind of delicate monumentality,” as exhibit notes put it, that combined romanticism with a “willful deformation of convention.” His nudes became even larger, softer and “more liquid,” Bell said, sometimes with rolls of flab, and skin that seemed to glisten.

Critics had mixed reactions to some of this work, she noted. The New York Times heaped praise on many of these later paintings when they were shown in a 1942 exhibit in New York, calling Renoir “one of the greatest painters of our time.” But Sterling Clark hated the artist’s later work, Bell said, and referred in a letter to one nude portrait as “a great big mushy gelatinous fat woman with a sad face.”

In fact, according to Sebastian Smee, former art critic for The Boston Globe and now a reviewer for The Washington Post, an internet-based movement has developed in the last several years that deems Renoir a saccharine, second-rate painter. “Renoir-loathing is a default position in today’s art world” Smee wrote in the Post this week in an otherwise largely favorable review of the Clark exhibit.

But Sterling Clark and Renoir’s modern-day critics would seem to be outvoted by many of the painter’s fellow artists, including those of a younger generation. Pablo Picasso was a huge admirer, as was Henri Matisse. Picasso bought several of Renoir’s paintings, Shackelford says, and he created a number of works that paid homage to Renoir even as he forged his own signature style, cubism. He painted one of them, “Two Reclining Nudes,” in 1968 when he was in his late 80s.

Several of these works, and paintings by other artists influenced by Renoir’s nudes, such as Matisse, Suzanne Valadon and Pierre Bonnard, are part of the last section of the Clark exhibit. It makes sense: As Matisse said of these works by Renoir, they were “the loveliest nudes ever painted: no one has done better — no one.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Renoir: The Body, The Senses” is on exhibit at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown through Sept. 22. For tickets prices, hours and additional information, visit https://www.clarkart.edu/.


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