Monday, February 7th, 2011

An Everyday Eternity: A Show of Late Renoir

Renoir at Hammer Galleries

November 1, 2010 to January 22, 2011
475 Park Avenue, between 57th and 58th streets
New York City, (212) 644-4400

Pierre Auguste Renoir, Les Laveuses, circa 1912.  Oil on canvas, 25-3/4 x 21-1/2 inches.  Courtesy of Hammer Galleries, New York
Pierre Auguste Renoir, Les Laveuses, circa 1912. Oil on canvas, 25-3/4 x 21-1/2 inches. Courtesy of Hammer Galleries, New York

This stunning show of Auguste Renoir’s late work, running for over two months at the Hammer Gallery, has so-far failed to capture the critical notice it deserves.  Is the subtlety of this work so acute as to have been missed?

The show consists of twenty paintings, drawings and pastels all from the last three decades of the artist’s life, when Renoir was living on the Côte d’Azur, at Cagnes. The works in this show possess a quiet and intimate beauty that contrasts with the fleeting gaiety of Renoir’s Impressionist period for which he is best known.

As noted in the exhibition catalogue, Renoir sought to evoke a modern fêtes-champêtres.  By using family and friends as models, he grounded these works in the immediacy of the everyday while also aspiring to a sense of earthly paradise.  The result is an in-between reality that makes the figures appear of this world and yet beyond it.

Stillness and movement are somehow paradoxically distilled into single moments. For example, the upright torso and faraway gaze of Renoir’s Woman on a Green Cushion (1909) imparts a feeling of timelessness, while the awkward position of her legs signals an opposite state of perpetual motion. Similarly, in Bust of Woman (1909), the solidity of the woman’s head makes her seem frozen in time while the sweeping gesture of her right-hand arm suggests she is in the process of standing up.

Pierre Auguste Renoir, Young Woman in a Black Hat, 1895. Oil on canvas, 25-1/6 x 18-1/8 inches. Courtesy of Hammer Galleries, New York
Pierre Auguste Renoir, Young Woman in a Black Hat, 1895. Oil on canvas, 25-1/6 x 18-1/8 inches. Courtesy of Hammer Galleries, New York

Notwithstanding the work’s inherent classicism, this show reveals a more inventive side of Renoir suggestive of a vision both far-reaching and modern in outlook. A decade before Matisse painted his Woman in a Hat (1905) Renoir painted his Young Woman in a Black Hat (1895) in an equally daring composition in which the woman’s delicate features and ivory skin are contrasted with the enormous elephantine black hat she’s wearing.  Similarly, in Woman in the Green Chair (1900) Renoir employs such modernist pictorial devices as collapsed space and spatial ambiguity to heighten the pulsating tension between the woman and the curvilinear shape of the chair on which she is seated and that surrounds her like a snake. By leaving the upper left-hand corner of the painting sketchy and undefined, Renoir achieves a feeling of expansiveness in this otherwise spatially compressed work.

Renoir’s late works are impressive for their brilliance and luminosity, achieved not only through his a jewel-like palette but also by varying degrees of paint opacity, which is applied densely in some areas and thinly in others.   This can leave some of these works looking unfinished, Young Woman with Straw Hat (1900), for example.  Yet, in a painting likeWoman by the Seaside (1887),Renoir employs these effects to impart a feeling of spaciousness and grandeur in ways that areutterly transporting.  The solidity of the woman in this painting constructed with parallel brushstrokes shows the influence of Cézanne, with whom Renoir was painting in 1885.

Unfortunately, the failure to recognize the genius of an artist of such nuance can have irreversible consequences. Renoir’s The Washerwoman (1912) – a masterpiece of his late period – was owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art before being de-accessioned. Similarly, Reclining Nude Bather (1902) – another stunning late Renoir which is not in the show at Hammer – was previously in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art before they too de-accessioned the work along with the four other Renoirs they owned.  Kirk Vanderoe justified this decision characterizing the piece as “a late and no way ground breaking painting [that] simply didn’t belong to the history of modern art we are telling.”

This show and art history strongly suggest otherwise. The 2009-10 exhibition, Renior in the 20th Century (Grand Palais, Paris; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Philadelphia Museum of Art,), amply demonstrated the influence of  Renoir’s late work upon the likes of Picasso, Matisse, and Bonnard all of whom collected his work, visited him in Cagnes, and professed their admiration for him.

It is both humbling and awe-inspiring to consider that when painting these works Renoir suffered from the crippling effects of rheumatoid arthritis.  He was confined to a wheelchair and painted with the aid of an orthotic device.  One would expect the debilitating effects of his illness to result in a more limited means of expression.   Yet, in the case of Renoir, the opposite seems to have been the case. Light in both style and feeling, these exuberant works express the artist’s sheer delight in his natural surroundings and deep affection for the people he loved. Renoir stated that his ultimate aim was to express an “everyday eternity.”  Judging by some of the glorious works in this show, he succeeded in attaining this elusive goal.

Pierre Auguste Renoir, Bather at the Seaside, 1887.  Oil on canvas, 16-1/4 x 12-3/4 inches.  Courtesy of Hammer Galleries, New York
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