Magazine article Artforum International

"Late Renoir"

Magazine article Artforum International

"Late Renoir"

Article excerpt

ONE THING A FAMOUS, elderly, or dead artist's work can never be is too late. There has been widespread interest in "late" shows lately--the mesmerizing late interiors of Bonnard, Picasso's musketeers, Monet's late water lilies, and the contusing last efforts of Warhol and Dali have all recently been presented for reconsideration. Central to this trend is the exhibition "Late Renoir," on view this summer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which examined the surprisingly divisive output of this ubiquitous artist's final years.

The Philadelphia exhibition covered roughly the period from 1890 until Renoir's death in 1919 (a slightly different version, with the far more thought-provoking title "Renoir in the Twentieth Century," previously visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Grand Palais in Paris). The show, curated here by Jennifer Thompson, commenced with the artist's marriage in 1890 and his subsequent absorption, at the rather advanced age of forty-nine, into the rhythms of family life. He had begun to repudiate Impressionism during the decade before his marriage, becoming more focused on drawing and structure and looking to earlier painters, notably Raphael and Ingres, for guidance. His methods had already begun to evolve from spontaneous execution in the presence of the subject to analysis and construction from memory. Renoir was imagining an art more "traditional" than Impressionism was then thought to be (less "post-studio"), but based on the evidence, the traits that make Renoir's late work simultaneously regressive and advanced, and hence so moving and strange, didn't fully assert themselves until after the turn of the century.

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Renoir had always practiced a private religion of the ordinary. Among the varsity Impressionists, his subject matter had most thoroughly accounted for contemporary society and the ageless rhythms of mundane domestic life, as memorialized in French painting at least since Corot. By the early 1890s, resistance to Renoir's work had long since dissipated, and the apparently warm picture of bourgeois society that suffused his vision was hugely popular. Young Girls at the Piano, 1892, has the slightly formulaic air of an instant classic. But things were starting to change. In Two Girls Reading, ca. 1890-91, the prepubescent reverie and youthful pulchritude of the sweet little protagonists emerge from a slurry of brushstrokes that obliquely suggests the weird rumblings under the skin of the work. A piece like Gabrielle Reading, 1906, clearly shows a quiet shift within such quotidian subjects. As Renoir's facture became at once gauzier and more assertive, a generalized, nonspecific libido became more pronounced, and the palette became redder, more associated with body heat and the feel of sunlight on flesh. The model who posed for this work was a cousin of Renoir's wife who had moved in with them to help with the children and became a close friend and favorite model of her employer. Gabrielle came to embody for Renoir the specific manifestation of an archetype (and she was always available). Her physical aspect became a virtual template for his subsequent ruminations on females in nature. In the later Judgment of Paris, 1913-14, the nudes in this mythological confection seem to be almost versions of one another, as though Gabriel had multiplied, like Agent Smith in The Matrix.

While Renoir relied on living models and real situations for his subjects, his search for the eternal within the everyday seemed only to gain added urgency in his advanced age, which may explain his fascination with the superimposition of mythological narratives onto contemporary subjects, as in the strange Young Shepherd in Repose (Portrait of Alexander Thurneyssen), 1911, in which the adolescent son of a patron is represented in "classical" guise as a stoned-looking shepherd boy in a sexy animal skin, grooving on little birds, Jean as a Huntsman, 1910, similarly echoes the conventions of earlier aristocratic portraiture, presenting the artist's son as an elegant hunter--which he was not--with rifle and hound. …

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