If there’s something we often overlook about Impressionism, with our talk of modestly sized canvases, bright palettes and quotidian themes, it is that its practitioners and supporters saw themselves as the heirs to a long tradition of French painting. Renoir’s dark-eyed, honey-blonde women may have been contemporaries of the subjects of paintings by Monet, Cézanne and Morisot, but they are related more intimately to his first loves in paintings by Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard. In its connection to such a tradition, this show is rightly at home at the Frick. The historical side of his project is rarely as legible as it is here.
These nine paintings also reveal an anxiety about women’s roles. “My models don’t think at all,” Renoir once said to his son, the filmmaker Jean Renoir, and from these pink-cheeked innocents it’s clear the painter liked his women as mythic as only goddesses and milkmaids can be. Renoir’s women have a simple, blowsy beauty that represented something eternal for the painter. Just as the villagelike Paris that Renoir had grown up in, a ramble of wooden shacks, rosebushes, vegetable gardens and cows, would find itself threatened by the modernizations of Haussmann, women’s roles changed rapidly during his lifetime. These images, made by a man who once painted to race against a machine, are the work of someone who sees every detail of modern life with incredible lucidity, but wishes, and believes against all odds, that nothing will ever change.