Renoir’s Controversial Second Act

Late in life, the French impressionist’s career took an unexpected turn. A new exhibition showcases his radical move toward tradition

Renoir's home in Cagnes-sur-Mer, in the South of France, was a source of inspiration (The Farm at Les Collettes, 1914). (Bequest of Charlotte Gina Abrams, in memory of her husband, Lucien Abrams, 1961 / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
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In October 1881, not long after he finished his joyous Luncheon of the Boating Party, probably his best-known work and certainly one of the most admired paintings of the past 150 years, Pierre-Auguste Renoir left Paris for Italy to fulfill a long-standing ambition. He was 40 and already acclaimed as a pioneer of Impressionism, the movement that had challenged French academic painting with its daring attempts to capture light in outdoor scenes. Represented by a leading gallery and collected by connoisseurs, he filled the enviable role of well-respected, if not yet well-paid, iconoclast.

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His ambition that fall was to reach Venice, Rome, Florence and Naples and view the paintings of Raphael, Titian and other Renaissance masters. He was not disappointed. Indeed, their virtuosity awed him, and the celebrated artist returned to Paris in a state approaching shock. “I had gone as far as I could with Impressionism,” Renoir later recalled, “and I realized I could neither paint nor draw.”

The eye-opening trip was the beginning of the end of the Renoir most of us know and love. He kept painting, but in an entirely different vein—more in a studio than in the open air, less attracted to the play of light than to such enduring subjects as mythology and the female form—and within a decade Renoir entered what is called his late period. Critical opinion has been decidedly unkind.

As long ago as 1913, the American Impressionist Mary Cassatt wrote a friend that Renoir was painting abominable pictures “of enormously fat red women with very small heads.” As recently as 2007, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith bemoaned “the acres of late nudes” with their “ponderous staginess,” adding “the aspersion ‘kitsch’ has been cast their way.” Both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City have unloaded late-period Renoirs to accommodate presumably more significant works. In 1989, MOMA sold Renoir’s 1902 Reclining Nude because “it simply didn’t belong to the story of modern art that we are telling,” the curator of paintings, Kirk Varnedoe, said at the time.

“For the most part, the late work of Renoir has been written out of art history,” says Claudia Einecke, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Renoir was seen as an interesting and important artist when he was with the Impressionists. Then he sort of lost it, becoming a reactionary and a bad painter—that was the conventional wisdom.”

If the mature Renoir came to be seen as passé, mired in nostalgia and eclipsed by Cubism and Abstract art, a new exhibition aims to give him his due. After opening this past fall at the Grand Palais in Paris, “Renoir in the 20th Century” will go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art February 14 and the Philadelphia Museum of Art June 17. The exhibition, the first to focus on his later years, brings together about 70 of his paintings, drawings and sculptures from collections in Europe, the United States and Japan. In addition, works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Aristide Maillol and Pierre Bonnard demonstrate Renoir’s often overlooked influence on their art.

On display are odalisques and bathing nudes (including Reclining Nude, now in a private collection), Mediterranean landscapes and towns, society figures and young women combing their hair, embroidering or playing the guitar. Quite a few are modeled on famous pieces by Rubens, Titian and Velázquez or pay homage to Ingres, Delacroix, Boucher and classical Greek sculpture. “Renoir believed strongly in going to museums to learn from other artists,” says Sylvie Patry, curator of the Paris exhibit. She paraphrases Renoir: “One develops the desire to become an artist in front of paintings, not outdoors in front of beautiful landscapes.”

Curiously, though expert opinion would turn against his later works, some collectors, notably the Philadelphia inventor Albert Barnes, bought numerous canvases, and major artists championed Renoir’s efforts. “In his old age, Renoir was considered by the young, avant-garde artists as the greatest and most important modern artist, alongside Cézanne,” says Einecke.

Take his 1895-1900 painting Eurydice. Based on a classical pose, the seated nude is endowed with disproportionately large hips and thighs against a diffusely painted Mediterranean landscape of pastel green and violet hues. “It was just this free interpretation of a traditional subject, this sense of liberty, that captivated Picasso,” Patry says. Eurydice was one of seven Renoir paintings and drawings Picasso collected, and, the curator adds, it was a likely inspiration for his 1921 canvas Seated Bather Drying Her Feet. (Despite attempts by Picasso’s dealer Paul Rosenberg to introduce them, the two artists never met.) Einecke remembers her art history professors dismissing Eurydice and similarly monumental Renoir nudes as “pneumatic, Michelin-tire girls.” She hopes today’s viewers will identify them with the classical mode that regarded such figures as symbols of fecundity—and see them as precursors of modern nudes done by Picasso and others.

Renoir’s late embrace of tradition also owed a great deal to settling down after he married one of his models, Aline Charigot, in 1890. Their first son, Pierre, had been born in 1885; Jean followed in 1894 and Claude in 1901. “More important than theories was, in my opinion, his change from being a bachelor to being a married man,” Jean, the film director, wrote in his affectionate 1962 memoir Renoir, My Father.

About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

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