Renoir: The Body, The Senses

This exhibition opening on October 27 at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, uses Renoir's fascination with the human – especially female – form as a common thread to examine the trajectory of the artist’s career and his complex legacy.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Torso of a Woman in the Sunlight, ca. 1876. © The Clark Art Institute

As one of the founders of Impressionism, Pierre-Auguste Renoir remains most closely associated with that movement. Yet during his long and prolific career, he traveled far afield of its once radical precepts, leaving him with one foot outside the seemingly impervious afterglow that encompasses Monet and the rest; much of his later work has long been controversial, if not maligned. Even within the Impressionist movement, he stood apart, preferring figure paintings and portraits to landscapes. Renoir: The Body, The Senses, which opens this month at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, uses this fascination with the human – especially female – form as a common thread to examine the trajectory of the artist’s career and his complex legacy.

Born in Limoges in 1841, Renoir moved with his family to Paris as a young child. His tailor father and seamstress mother sought to channel his artistic talents into porcelain painting, but he saved up his own money for art classes. He ended up studying in the same studio as Claude Monet, Frédéric Bazille, and Alfred Sisley. In 1864, the four decamped to the forest of Fontainebleau to shake off the constraints of academicism and paint directly from nature. In later years, Renoir and Monet would take this freedom even further, famously painting side by side at La Grenouillère, a riverfront resort near Paris. Striving to capture the fleeting effects of light on water, they laid the groundwork for the vibrant, sketch-like style we now know as Impressionism.

Renoir participated in the first few Impressionist exhibitions, displaying such masterpieces as Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876), but his interests shifted as he found favor with the Salon and success as a portrait painter. As he later told the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, “I’d gone as far as I could with Impressionism, and I came to the realization that I could neither paint nor draw anymore. In short, I was at an impasse.”

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Little Blue Nude, ca. 1879. © Albright-Knox Art Gallery

An 1881 trip to Italy marked a major turning point in his career. Inspired by the Renaissance masters, particularly Raphael, he adopted a more classical, linear style with a limited palette; this has been called his “dry” period. Perhaps unsurprisingly for an artist so clearly enamored of color and inclined toward voluptuousness, it did not last long.

In his later years, Renoir continued to look to the old masters, but this time to Titian and Rubens. He developed “an obsession with the female body,” as curator Sylvie Patry explained on the occasion of a 2009 exhibition of the artist’s late works at the Grand Palais in Paris. Accordingly, nudes not only became a more frequent subject of his work, but the figures also dominated their own pictorial space. These paintings have never left anyone indifferent. The artist Mary Cassatt saw “enormously fat, red women with very small heads,” while the poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire enthused: “These latest works are so calm, serene, and mature that I don’t think Renoir could surpass them.” Love them or hate them, these striking canvases meld modernism and classicism in a way that undoubtedly influenced later artists, notably Picasso.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Bathers, 1918-1919. © Musée d’Orsay

Marking the centenary of the artist’s death, Renoir: The Body, The Senses brings together some 70 paintings, works on paper, and sculptures spanning his career, along with pieces by his predecessors, contemporaries, and followers to lend context. Among the highlights is The Bathers, from the collection of Paris’s Musée d’Orsay. Completed the year he died, this monumental canvas epitomizes Renoir’s controversial late period. Indeed, when his sons offered it to the state, the gift was accepted only after they showed that the American art collector Albert C. Barnes (squarely in the “love them” camp) had offered to buy it for a generous sum.

It is worth noting that Renoir spent his final years confined to a wheelchair by rheumatoid arthritis, eventually obliged to strap a paintbrush to his hand. His two elder sons were wounded in World War I, and his wife died in 1915. Not a whiff of any of this is evident in his work. As Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones once wrote, “Renoir is the guardian of a courtly tradition that stretches from the Renaissance through the French rococo to the boating parties of the 19th-century bourgeoisie. He lived through two wars, but it never occurred to him that art was about war or politics. It existed to enhance life.”

Renoir: The Body, The Senses

From October 27, 2019, through January 26, 2020
Kimbell Art Museum
Fort Worth, Texas

Article published in the June 2019 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.