Art

New face of an old master

The National Gallery reassesses Renoir

JOHN DeMONT August 4 1997
Art

New face of an old master

The National Gallery reassesses Renoir

JOHN DeMONT August 4 1997

New face of an old master

Art

The National Gallery reassesses Renoir

It seemed like the perfect respite from what had become an all-consuming task. Last summer, Colin Bailey, chief curator of the National Gallery of Canada, jumped at a private invitation to visit the Normandy château where French impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir had spent his summers. Bailey, who had immersed himself for more than five years in Renoir’s paintings to prepare for a largescale exhibition of his portraits, was familiar with almost every aspect of the painter’s life. Even so, he was surprised at how eerie it felt to stand in the very room where Renoir had set one of his great works, the 1884 Children’s Afternoon at Wargemont—and find it virtually unchanged from the painting.

Sleeping in the same room where the painter had rested seemed even more haunting.

Then, early one morning, Bailey was taking photographs inside the château, located just outside Dieppe. “I felt something or someone stirring in the house,” he recalled.

“It made me drop my camera.

Happily, the photographs came out all right, but it was very strange.” The spirit of Renoir? Bailey, an Oxford PhD graduate who joined the National Gallery in 1995, refuses to speculate. But if that spirit exists anywhere this summer, it is probably inside Ottawa’s National Gallery, where Renoir’s Portraits: Impressions of an Age, is one of the hits of the international art season. “I should like to mount an exhibition devoted exclusively to my portraits,” Renoir wrote in 1880. Bringing together 61 works from prominent public and private collections around the world, this show fulfils the painter’s wish. The exhibition, which

opened on June 27, is on view in Ottawa until September 14, and then travels to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Tex., where Bailey was senior curator for four years. Gary Tinterow, curator of European painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, describes it as “a considerable accomplishment.” A crowd-pleasing one, too: so far, attendance has averaged 3,000 people a day, which means the show could surpass the 1988 Degas exhibition as the National Gallery’s best-attended show.

The crowds come as no real surprise.

Renoir’s paintings contain images so recognizable and beloved that they grace everything from umbrellas and chocolate boxes to sofa cushions and fridge magnets. Ironically, the qualities that make Renoir’s work so popular— his radiant images of women and children and lively depic^ tions of French life—have I made it easy for recent critics £ and scholars to dismiss him as facile, while extolling the S importance of other painters in I the impressionist school.

I But Bailey, along with other I scholars, has long felt the tai| lobs son from Limoges, France, § deserved more scrutiny. The I problem was where to start. Alx though no single catalogue of Renoir’s work exists, estimates are that he painted between 2,000 and 3,000 pieces in his lifetime. But among the nudes, the landscapes and his famous scenes of French bourgeois life—such as Dance at Bougival (which is included in the exhibition), The Luncheon of the Boating Party, and Ball at the Moulin de la Galette—Bailey was struck by the painter’s uncanny ability to convey a sense of his subjects’ temperaments as well as their outward appearance. “Portraiture, to me, was what touched his essence,” recalled Bailey.

Moreover, focusing on the portraits meant an opportunity to highlight different

periods in Renoir’s long, varied career. Grouped by decade, the introductory works place Renoir as an accomplished 21-year-old painter within a circle of artists that included Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and JeanFrédéric Bazille—the nexus of the group that became known as the Impressionists— who trained at the Paris studio of Charles Gleyre. And the show concludes with his last great commission: a portrait of the thenfamous German actor Tilia Durieux. Painted in 1914, five years before Renoir died at the age of 78, the luminous, life-size portrait shows no sign that the artist was by then crippled by arthritis. Confined to a wheelchair, he required the help of an assistant, who placed the paintbrush and palette in his all-but immobile fingers.

In between those decades, Renoir broke new ground as part of the Paris Impressionist exhibitions in the 1870s. Towards the end of the century, he returned to a more classic style, then found an original maturity in the masterpieces of his final years. Always, though, there were the portraits. He took the salons of Paris by storm in the 1870s with a series of fashionable portraits

of the merchants, society hostesses, art patrons and children of the beau monde. Mainly, Renoir did it for the money: the living he earned painting the pampered rich helped rent space, hire models and find time to work on his more ambitious compositions. But even after he had fallen out of fashion with high society, he continued to paint friends and family members, and found subjects among the artists, actors and acrobats of bohemian life.

Whatever his motivation, Bailey maintains, the genius almost always shone through. “It is spellbinding when you see how close he was to capturing their physical features, and even their natures,” he marvels. “But he was also capable of creating highly fictionalized images, of creating a soul which was not necessarily the soul of the sitter at the time— although they might have wanted it to be.”

The life-affirming joy and vitality of the work is undeniable. But what is most striking for a viewer used to Renoir’s sunny images is the moodiness of the works on display in Ottawa. Alongside the smiling children and dreamy-eyed actresses, Renoir’s father glowers unsentimentally, and the wife of Claude

Monet’s brother looks on the verge of death. Renoir does not spare himself either—his self-portraits depict him as intense and sorrowful in middle-age and, finally, as a sunken, frail old man. In time, even his society portraits, such as Children's Afternoon at Wargemont, seemed to lose their soft-lens focus and become starker and more austere.

All told, Renoir completed about 300 fully realized portraits. Roughly 100 were available when preparations for the National Gallery show began. Landing 69 (some paintings will not be on display at all three venues) meant persuading reticent Japanese collectors to part with their valuable works and convincing some of the most prominent galleries in the United States, France, England and Russia that the project had merit.

The snaking lineups into the gallery seem to confirm the public thinks so. Bailey hopes the exhibit and the accompanying 400-page catalogue might “in some modest way, place Renoir on more solid ground.” At the very least, the world gets a chance to look at a new face of an old master.

JOHN DeMONT in Ottawa