A Certain Slant of Light

A Certain Slant of Light

A Certain Slant of Light

The big picture.
Nov. 13 1997 3:30 AM

A Certain Slant of Light

Renoir's luminescence is darker than one might think.

"Renoir's Portraits: Impressions of an Age"
Art Institute of Chicago: Oct. 21, 1997-Jan. 4, 1998
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth: Feb. 8-April 26, 1998


The visual drama of the Impressionist breakthrough into color and light has sometimes been dimmed in the frequent telling and retailing. As you walk through the early rooms of the sumptuous exhibition of Renoir portraits at the Art Institute of Chicago, the effect of following Renoir's career is like that of traveling through a tunnel. You pause before the precocious Inn of Mère Antony (1866), where dinner guests modeled on the peasant forms of Millet and Courbet huddle around a candle-lit table. Caricatures scrawled on the dim walls behind them echo their dark shapes. We could be in the caves of Lascaux, so gloomy are the grays and blacks of Renoir's early palette. Then, in a small, circular room, the first flickers of daylight: In Claude Monet Painting (1875), Renoir's close friend stands in a darkened room in black hat and full bushy black beard, but there's a wet blob of vermilion on the tip of his paintbrush, and more of that red smeared on the palette in his left hand. Renoir, Monet, and their associates in the Impressionist circle were beginning to find ways to leave behind the shadowy chiaroscuro of earlier European painting, which they associated with a rural world now lost to modern experience.


You follow the crowd to the next room, and all that was gray turns into gold; the heavy, leaden shapes dissolve in a shower of light. The painting before you is the Metropolitan's huge Madame Charpentier and Her Children, the sensation of the Salon of 1878 and the work that made Renoir's reputation as a portrait painter. Madame Charpentier, wife of a publisher, reclines in her Japanese-style boudoir. Her daughter sits on the long-suffering family pet, a Newfoundland whose black-and-white coat comically echoes Madame Charpentier's elaborate dress. Her son--dressed identically to the daughter in pinafore and patent-leather shoes--joins his mother on the sofa. The surrounding Japanese screens and mats are red and gold. "Seen on the walls of a museum," Marcel Proust wrote, Madame Charpentier "will give a greater impression of elegance than anything since the great paintings of the Renaissance."

Of all the Impressionist painters, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, alchemist of elegance, had the humblest beginnings. Born in the porcelain manufacturing city of Limoges in 1841, the son of an impoverished tailor and a dressmaker, Renoir was apprenticed at age 13 to a porcelain painter in Paris whose firm specialized in imitations of Limoges ware. The 18th-century rococo scenes that Renoir learned to execute with great skill, dancers and performers and picnics in the country, were a major influence on his later work. Then, at age 17, Renoir was abruptly laid off, his paintbrush replaced by a machine.

Renoir's dazzling career as a painter can be viewed as his effort to prove the factory wrong. As the art historian Robert Herbert has pointed out, Renoir's famously feathery brushwork (which, according to one hostile critic, left light "like grease spots on the clothing of his figures") was meant to show the mark of the hand rather than the mechanical "finish" of academic and salon art. Renoir went so far as to write a manifesto in 1884 for a society of "Irregularists"--to include such sworn enemies of mechanical perfection as "painters, decorators, architects, goldsmiths, embroiderers, etc."--but he couldn't muster enough fellow members. A late painting like Christine Lerolle Embroidering (1897), with its complex weave of frames within frames, is a veritable catalog of the craftsmanlike bric-a-brac Renoir admired: the embroidery frame constructed of bamboo; William Morris wallpaper; a Japanese vase; the rough-hewed paintings of Degas and Renoir himself that the connoisseurs are inspecting in the background.


When Renoir's well-off fellow Impressionists, the aristocrat Manet or the banker's son Degas, strolled through the working-class neighborhoods of Montmartre, they were consciously slumming. They could afford to disdain commissions for portraits and to paint, instead, the class tensions of Paris--predatory males and streetwalking women. Renoir, by contrast, had lived by necessity in the slums of Paris. When he painted the two girls in his wonderful Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando (1879), he was depicting members of his own social class. In the background one can just make out the binoculars of an eager male viewer and the stripe on the trousers of an erect soldier, but all our attention gravitates toward the innocent isolation of these two performers, one of whom has gathered as many oranges, thrown as tokens from the appreciative crowd, as her small arms can hold.


The harsh social vision of Acrobats makes one wonder why Renoir's critical reputation has fared so badly in recent years, particularly at the hands of such leftist critics as T.J. Clark, who contemptuously dismisses the artist's "boulevard pastorals." On the occasion of the last big Renoir show a decade ago, Art in America assembled a team of heavy hitters who took turns taking a swing at Renoir. Peter Schjeldahl of the Village Voice called Renoir "the worst artist ever to achieve canonical status"; art historian Michael Fried remarked that "Renoir's native gift was perilously slight"; and critic Robert Rosenblum worried about the "sugar content" of his paintings.


Only Linda Nochlin (whose contribution to the catalog of the Chicago show is an overview of Impressionist portraiture with almost nothing on Renoir) used the Art in America occasion to say something serious and illuminating about Renoir's art, noting that Renoir's men--in such idylls as Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881) and Dance at Bougival (1883) (both great paintings, which blur the distinction between portrait and genre painting, are in the Chicago show)--offer a masculine ideal counter to the male predators and businessmen of Degas and Manet: "Tough and tender at once," these men "are luscious, peachy-skinned and downy-haired, with heavy-lidded eyes and yearning red mouths." That androgynous tenderness is evident in Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise (The Rowers' Lunch) (1875), where we can't tell if the red daubs on the men's heads are ears or flowers.


Renoir's portraits of children, which have a kindred prelapsarian innocence, now seem the quintessence of cute. To his contemporaries, however, such paintings as Child in a White Dress (Lucie Berard) (1883) and Girl With a Watering Can (1879; not in the show, but hanging in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.) were alarming. Lucie Berard's father reported that the portrait of his daughter, with its unorthodox coloring and swirling purple background, "simply frightens people away." In this regard as in others, Renoir has been the victim of his own success. He banished the sentimental, "penseroso" poses and the comforting twilit faces favored by the fashionable portrait painters he competed with. His children too have emerged from the tunnel, and they stare frankly out at us, uncompromising and alone.

Christopher Benfey is a regular contributor to Slate. His new book, Degas in New Orleans, will be published this month.