At Last, They Go Wild For Renoir’s Portraits

Writing about the Impressionist master Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) nearly half a century ago, the Italian critic Lionello Venturi spoke of “the surprise continually caused by his huge number of pictures and the disappointment frequently experienced by persons looking at his pictures for the first time-a disappointment which always ends, however, in a victory for the painter.” To no part of Renoir’s copious oeuvre is such a response more likely to occur than to the portraits, which occupied an important place in the painter’s artistic thought throughout his long career. With the portraits, indeed, “victory for the painter” has sometimes been especially slow in coming.

Much as Renoir was esteemed by his contemporaries, his portraits were not always admired in his lifetime. There was often a suspicion that they were mere commercial productions, and they certainly did contribute to the artist’s need to make a living. There were also friends among the embattled Impressionist painters who felt betrayed when Renoir sent pictures of such obvious appeal to the official Salon, from which their own, more difficult paintings were excluded. In the heyday of the early 20th-century avant-garde, moreover, paintings of this persuasion were sometimes mistaken for an art that pandered to the low taste of stupid millionaires. In retrospect, however, at least a few of the millionaires who commissioned portraits of their wives and children from Renoir are now understood not to have been quite so stupid after all, for the paintings are clearly masterpieces.

It is no doubt owing to this history of mixed feelings about Renoir’s portraits that these paintings have only now, nearly 80 years after the artist’s death, been made the subject of a major exhibition for the first time. Renoir’s Portraits: Impressions of an Age , which has just opened at the Art Institute of Chicago, was organized earlier this year by Colin Bailey at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, where Mr. Bailey is the chief curator. It is a wonderful exhibition. Not only does it triumphantly trace the course of Renoir’s stellar achievements as a painter of portraits, but it is itself one of the most delightful Renoir exhibitions ever mounted. And it has the additional virtue of not being one of those endless, exhausting blockbusters that leave even the most sympathetic visitors yearning for the exit long before the end is in sight.

In selecting some 60-odd paintings for Renoir’s Portraits , Mr. Bailey has nicely contrived to give us just the right mix of familiar and unfamiliar pictures from virtually every phase of the artist’s development over a 60-year period. One of the earliest and least known (on this side of the Atlantic, anyway)- The Inn of Mère Antony (1866), from the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm-is one of the most amazing, Renoir’s first monumental group portrait. The scene is a country inn much favored by landscape painters at the time. Alfred Sisley, who had been a fellow student with Renoir in the atelier of Charles Gleyre, is seen seated at the right, and the standing male figure rolling a cigarette is said to be Renoir’s own self-portrait. In style, the painting is a work of pre-Impressionist realism that, as Mr. Bailey notes in the catalogue, places Renoir at the age of 25 “unequivocally in the orbit of Courbet and Manet.” It also establishes the young Renoir as a painter of extraordinary mastery, if not yet the master who is better known to us from such later and more celebrated group portraits as Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children (1878), from the Metropolitan Museum, and the Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-1881), from the Phillips Collection in Washington, which are also in the exhibition.

In certain other early portraits- The Artist’s Brother, Pierre-Henri Renoir and Madame Stora in Algerian Dress (both 1870)-Renoir is also seen working in the orbit of Delacroix. Especially in regard to the Madame Stora portrait, we are reminded by Mr. Bailey that for the great German critic Julius Meier-Graefe, “Renoir’s immersion in Delacroix constituted the crucial experimentation of 1870 and precipitated the artist’s coming of age as a colorist.” It is no wonder, then, that this glowing picture, which now belongs to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, was formerly in the collection of Claude Monet, who, as it happens, is also the subject of several Renoir portraits in this exhibition.

Mention of Monet, however, inevitably raises the question of how much of an orthodox Impressionist Renoir actually became, particularly in the portraits. Compared to Monet, certainly, Renoir remained a traditionalist whose loyalty to the legacy of Delacroix, Paul Rubens and Titian remained unbroken. The decade or so during which he turned to Impressionism-roughly, 1867 to 1877-and worked in the orbit of Monet certainly had lasting consequences for his later painting. It had the effect of changing the light, not only in the way Renoir painted his outdoor subjects but, more radically, in the way he illuminated his indoor portrait pictures. Bringing the natural light of Impressionism indoors to his most complex and otherwise “traditionalist” interior figure compositions was indeed one of the triumphs of Renoir’s career. It is one of the things that makes Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children not only a great painting but a radical painting as well.

What we see in the course of Renoir’s Portraits is an artistic development that leads from Delacroix, Courbet and Manet into the radical innovations of Impressionism and then, owing to Renoir’s dissatisfaction with Impressionism, to something beyond-the post-Impressionism of the next generation. When, at a crucial turn in the Renoir’s Portraits exhibition, we come to the strangest of all the artist’s interior-with-figures compositions- Children’s Afternoon at Wargemont (1884), from the Nationalgalerie in Berlin-we feel transported to some unspecified date in early 20th-century modernism a full generation in advance. Meier-Graefe, who was not easily shocked, said of this interior scene that “there had never before been such a room in the history of painting,” adding that “one is tempted to ask if the room really existed.” Mr. Bailey, of course, has visited the room in question in the course of his Renoir research, and gives us a detailed account of the pictorial liberties Renoir took in depicting it. He also points out that the painting is actually “indebted to examples from ancient art and Renaissance painting for its colorism, drier handling, and frieze-like composition”-which effectively removes the painting from the orbit of Impressionism. It was through similar strategies that Cézanne and Seurat moved beyond Impressionism, and in a good many of his later portraits Renoir is seen to be in their company.

Mr. Bailey is to be congratulated for the excellence with which he has handled almost every aspect of a subject that had never before been made the focus of such an ambitious exhibition. As he is well aware, not every portrait of this show is a masterpiece, to be sure. Renoir’s facility resulted in some fairly dull pictures at times, and the last room in Renoir’s Portraits contains more of these, perhaps, than was strictly necessary. But it’s a marvelous and revelatory exhibition, all the same, and it is a pity for New York to be missing out on it. The next and final stop of the exhibition’s tour will be the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Tex. Meanwhile, Renoir’s Portraits remains in Chicago through Jan. 4.