Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting
February 7 through May 13, 2012
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1875
When we think of the Impressionists,
who turned their backs on the official
Salon in the 1870s and 1880s and
showed their work in dealers' galleries,
we conjure up light-filled, freely painted
landscapes and scenes of modern life.
Impressionist paintings also tend to be
relatively modest in scale, spontaneous
in compositional structure, and of a
brightness and tonality which, while
admired today, caused distress and incomprehension among
many critics and collectors at the time. The young painters
who joined forces in the spring of 1874 to mount the First
Impressionist Exhibition — chief among whom were Claude
Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro,
and Paul Cézanne — had been encouraged in the 1860s by
Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet to present their work in
the official arena. In the last decade of the Second Empire, these
Young Turks had even enjoyed a certain notoriety at the Salon,
garnering attention in the press, interest from dealers, as well
as the occasional sale. To make an impact in the official Salon,
held every year in the crowded rooms of the Palais de l'Industrie
on the Champs-Élysées — replaced in 1900 by the Grand Palais — these artists were encouraged to paint works that today might
be described as having "wall power."
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Self-Portrait, The Sterling and Francine Clark Art
Institute, Williamstown c. 1875
The large-scale format was especially congenial to Renoir, who
as an eighteen-year-old had apprenticed with a manufacturer of
blinds for export to missionary churches and had painted full-length
images of the Virgin and Child in imitation of stained glass
windows. Renoir had also painted mural decorations in cafés
in his youth, working directly on the walls. "You have no idea
how intoxicating it is to cover large surfaces," he later confided
to his son, the filmmaker Jean Renoir. Between the mid-1860s
and the mid-1880s, when Renoir and the artists who came to
be known as the Impressionists were constructing a new
pictorial language, he was constantly engaged in painting, or
thinking about painting, large, figurative compositions in the
time-honored tradition of the masterpiece. For much of this
time, Renoir was preoccupied with showing his work in the
official Salon, to which — between 1863 and 1883 — he submitted
every year but three. Only in 1874, 1876, and 1877 did Renoir
show his paintings in the Impressionist group exhibitions; in
1882, much to his distress, his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel sent
twenty-five of his works to the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition
without his authorization.
The nine works, dating from 1874 to 1885,
demonstrate the importance of large-scale
figure painting in Renoir's
oeuvre, above all in the experimental
decade of Impressionism when such
formats and fashionable subjects were
also the stock-in-trade of successful
genre painters working in more
conventional and conservative styles.
The exhibition was inspired by La
Promenade of 1875–76, exhibited in the Second Impressionist
Exhibition of April 1876 and acquired by Henry Clay Frick in
1914. Hanging in a collection that boasts splendid
full-length paintings by Veronese, Van Dyck, Gainsborough,
and Whistler, Renoir's Promenade appears as the most modern
example of a well-established tradition in portraiture and history
painting. As this group of nine full-length figure paintings shows,
Renoir — a committed Impressionist — returned to this "public"
format again and again for his most ambitious paintings of
modern life. Few of these works, now considered among the icons
of Impressionism, sold for large sums at the time; some remained
unsold for decades. Nor were any of the paintings in the exhibition
commissioned by patrons or dealers. Only in the 1890s, when the
Impressionists had long since disbanded, did collectors of modern
art begin to acquire these earlier works for respectable amounts.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, American collectors
such as Frick, Joseph Early Widener, and Stephen C. Clark
purchased outstanding examples of Renoir's full-length figure
paintings for record prices, prices that nevertheless remained well
below those fetched by the work of the established Old Masters.
Principal funding for the exhibition is provided by The Florence Gould Foundation and Michel David-Weill.
Additional support is generously provided by The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, The Grand Marnier Foundation, and the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation.
Corporate support is provided by Fiduciary Trust Company International.
The exhibition is also supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.