The Frick Collection
The West Gallery of The Frick Collection
Special Exhibition

Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting
February 7 through May 13, 2012

  Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1875
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1875

The Impressionists

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
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.