Dorrance Special Exhibition Galleries, first floor
Celebrated for his portraits and nudes, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) is most often associated with figure painting. He was also a lover of nature, however, and an accomplished painter of landscapes. This exhibition is the first to explore the inventiveness and importance of these landscapes during the first decades of Renoir's career. Remarkable in their freshness and immediacy, these works of art reveal nature as a deep source of inspiration and demonstrate the artist's fascination with the effects of outdoor light.
This is where Renoir innovates the most...
Available in Approximately 60 paintings by Renoir, drawn from public and private collections in the United States and abroad, offer a fresh approach to the French Impressionist's art. The exhibition begins with works from the 1860s, shortly after the painter met Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley in the studio of Charles Gleyre. It continues into the 1870s, when Renoir's own landscape style began to emerge, and explores the artist's extensive experimentation with color and composition. The exhibition concludes with paintings from the 1880s, when Renoir's travels in North Africa and Italy exposed him to new landscape motifs and encouraged his use of an even more intense color palette. The paintings on view in this exhibition reveal the subtlety of touch; vaporous effects; and lush, full-blown color that mark Renoir as one of the most audacious and original landscape artists of his age.
Renoir's landscape paintings document the changing face of nature in the late nineteenth century and the new social activities that such transformations afforded. His style of painting was innovative, and the landscapes themselves represented new points of interest for city-dwellers; reminding them about the wonders of nature outside the ever-growing metropolis and the introduction of natural settings into the urban fabric of the city.
At the start of his career, Renoir used landscape painting as a way to escape the confines of the studio and to practice his art in the open air (en plein air). While sketching out-of-doors had long been a part of academic training for artists, one group of independents, the Barbizon artists, took their studies further and made landscape painting their central preoccupation. Named for a village on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau, this group, which included Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet, came to prominence in the mid-nineteenth century. Following in the footsteps of these pioneers, Renoir and many of his friends created their landscapes while outdoors at Fontainebleau and other towns surrounding Paris.
Today many people think of landscapes as pictures without people, yet most landscape paintings made before Renoir's time relied on figures to provide context. Renoir was steeped in the history of French painting and was particularly interested in the eighteenth century, when artists such as Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and François Boucher often depicted the outdoors as a site of aristocratic leisure or as the background to a mythological or historical story. Therefore, it is not surprising to find among Renoir's landscapes scenes of people relaxing outside. Whether the image features a view of courtship as in The Promenade, at left, or merely a pair on a terrace overlooking the river as in By the Water, also on view in this exhibition, Renoir uses landscape to introduce ideas of nature and its social associations.
Many contemporary viewers assume that in order to be a landscape painting, a picture must be free of figurative elements. But this idea is one that results from the choices made by Renoir's contemporaries. First coined by the artist Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) in 1874, the term "pure landscape" was used to describe a landscape painting in which figures played a minimal role in the composition or were absent altogether. Pure landscape painting came to prominence in the nineteenth century against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution, when the meaning and importance of nature were changing significantly. Many of Renoir's landscape scenes from the 1870s could be characterized as pure with their focus on pictorial elements, such as the effect of light and color, over and above any anecdotal interest or story behind the painting.
The Impressionists were an informal group of French artists connected by the independent exhibitions that they took part in between 1874 and 1886. They were also linked by their painting styles and shared artistic interests. In Impressionist landscapes, bright colors and broken brushstrokes (taches, "spots" in French) predominate, a technique that can be traced to Renoir's and Claude Monet's experiments while painting at the bathing resort of La Grenouillère in 1869. In the summers of 1873 and 1874, however, the two artists also developed a consistent style for rendering the effects of light on the suburban world outside Paris, the destination of many day-trippers. One perceives in these landscapes by Renoir the same forceful expressiveness of color and stroke that characterizes the best of Monet's landscapes. While their pictorial innovations remain the very definition of Impressionism, it is clear that Renoir continued to expand on this style.
In Renoir's lifetime, many of the first public gardens were built in Paris and in cities around the world, and many former royal gardens were renovated as they were made public. Such spaces provided fresh air and beautiful promenades for everyone. In addition, private gardening became a means for people of all backgrounds to plant and cultivate their own landscapes for aesthetic pleasure. While many gardeners continued to grow food, these new gardens were also private spaces where creativity could be put to the task of devising an appealing natural environment. The expansion of the pleasure garden to the middle class is one of the developments of the late nineteenth century that has only increased in importance over time. Painting gardens doubles one's joy by allowing the interpretation of their colors and forms on canvas, and Renoir's pictures suggest a human interest in both shaping nature and enjoying its bounty.
While landscape generally suggests the world of nature, cityscapes have long been a part of the landscape tradition. Paris was Renoir's home from age four, and he made a series of paintings of the city in the 1870s that reflect his passion for the vitality of urban life and the changes that occurred in the previous two decades. Under Emperor Napoléon III, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809–1891) modernized the city's medieval jumble of streets and squares to the grand boulevards and sweeping vistas we know today. In this process, much was lost and Renoir's family was displaced twice to make way for new improvements. The city he depicted, however, is a light-filled metropolis full of visual interest, which he captured with rapid brushwork. These pictures employ innovative Impressionist techniques to portray the frenetic pace of modern life and the considerable leisure of strollers on newly widened avenues. Here are young trees and expanses of space, but what catches our attention are the moving figures that animate the cityscape.
In 1879, Renoir was invited by the Bérards, his friends and patrons, to Wargemont, their summer home near the Normandy coast. While there, Renoir painted portraits of various family members but he also made frequent outings to the surrounding countryside and, in particular, the seacoast. He created many landscapes that summer and when he returned to the stately retreat the following three years. In his depictions of the seacoast and the sea, made in Normandy and later on the island of Guernsey, Renoir continually reworked the subject, which led to surprising results, especially in his experimental canvases devoted to the effect of crashing waves. Among these paintings, no two are completely similar. Clearly, he was more interested in discovering and capturing specific visual experiences than developing a coherent landscape style.
At the age of 40, Renoir finally had the motivation and means to travel abroad. On his first trip, he went to Algeria, a longtime colony of France. During the month he spent there in the spring of 1881, he made some of the most remarkable landscapes of his career, developing innovative pictorial techniques to depict the North African locales. Renoir notably avoided the oft-represented sites that had by then been established as the area's central picturesque motifs. In Italy in the following year, however, he sought out famous sites, such as the Piazza San Marco in Venice, representing them in a vivid and coloristic style that would enrage critics when the works were exhibited in the Impressionist exhibition of 1882.
The image seen here, entitled Gondola, Venice, is the closest to a genre scene of any picture Renoir painted in Venice. A gondolier in striped shirt has transported two ladies across the lagoon, foreign tourists as we can tell from the French style of hat one of them wears. They are about to touch down at what is probably the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, ready to explore the monumental sixteenth-century church by Palladio that dominates it. An Italian girl sits on the water's edge, her head turned away from the approaching visitors in the direction of the artist who has positioned himself a few steps higher up to better survey the scene. Her short hair suggests that she is the same model Renoir also drew in pencil and sketched in oils at about this time. This conjunction of a gondolier and female Italian model recalls one of the few anecdotes Renoir told about his time in the city. He later reported to his friend Charles Deudon that while he wanted to paint figures in Venice, he had trouble finding models. He saw one girl "beautiful as a Madonna. My gondolier tells me he knows her, I hug him for joy." Once she posed, however, Renoir was unhappy with the self-conscious result, concluding that "to get someone to pose, you have to be very good friends and above all speak the language." This painting recalls the vivid scenes of gondolas plying the Grand Canal that resulted from Manet's 1874 visit to Venice. The interest in incorporating specifically Venetian figures recalls the paintings of Venetian work and leisure by John Singer Sargent, who had visited a year before Renoir, in 1880, and would return the following year. What is specific to Renoir, however, is the conjunction of large-scale figures in the foreground, including the uniquely Venetian shape of the gondola itself, and a panoramic view of the city as seen across the waters. While the background is freely sketched, we still are able to recognize the profile of the Dogana or Venetian Customs House at the upper left and the more distant Campanile of San Marco silhouetted against the sky further to the right. Much of the center of the canvas is given over to the choppy waters of the lagoon, rendered in quick touches of paint in various shades of blue and white and further animated by the reflections of a sailboat and distant buildings in yellow and red. The golden triangle of sail near the center of the painting, tinged with red, consolidates and intensifies the tones used to delineate the distant cityscape, thus subtly unifying the upper third of the composition. Renoir painted a second gondola scene as well, even more freely executed, part of his exploration of this specifically Venetian mode of transport. Perhaps he sensed that its picturesque, age-old reign was beginning to come to an end; the first public vaporetto service on the Grand Canal, less romantic than the gondola in every imaginable way, had been introduced on September 15, 1881, only a few months before the artist's arrival.
Renoir's late paintings demonstrate his persistent appreciation of landscape, even at the end of his life. By the time he painted The Farm at Les Collettes, seen at left, he suffered from such acute arthritis that he could neither walk nor hold his brushes, which had to be tied to the backs of his hands by assistants. Yet he continued to paint in the open air on his property. In these works, he evoked the timeless ideals of the natural world and the human presence within it.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, the development of an extensive railway system provided easier, quicker access to the natural environment beyond the immediate confines of the city. The forest of Fontainebleau, a royal retreat, became a popular site of recreation and escape from the stresses of urban life. The expansion of walking trails and the publication of numerous guides to the forest introduced new sylvan landscapes for public consumption and enjoyment. The forest became a popular subject among painters and photographers, and Renoir created several works that captured the dense vegetation and rock-studded hillocks of Fontainebleau. In February of 1866, Renoir accompanied architect-turned-painter Jules Le Coeur on a walking and painting tour through Fontainebleau. Renoir's painting Jules Le Coeur Walking in the Fontainbleau Forest with his Dogs, seen at left, captures a moment in this excursion and was undoubtedly executed on site as well as in the studio. Renoir depicts his friend as he climbs a grass-covered path through the hilly and densely covered terrain of the Forest.
The following photographs represent various aspects of the urban and rural environment in the nineteenth century—from views of public gardens to country estates. The modern human subject figures prominently in a number of these photographs. Whether relaxing in an urban park or returning from a sporting expedition, the women and men attest to the variety of activities that had become available to a wider public throughout the nineteenth century.
Founded in 1843, the French news weekly L'Illustration was an extravagantly produced periodical that sought to capture up-to-date views of the modern world. Throughout Renoir's lifetime, the publication was known for its woodcuts and metal etchings as well as the scope of its articles, which covered topics of Parisian, French, and international concerns. The images here present different ways in which landscape was represented on the pages of L'Illustration: from the image of landscape painters at work en plein air (seen at right) to uninhabited views of forest settings as well as the new private gardens that sprung up during the nineteenth century as bucolic retreats in the midst of the urban fabric of Paris (seen below). Daumier's satirical take on landscape artists at work provides a more incisive critique of the type of artistic ventures that were part and parcel of the visual representations reproduced on the pages of L'Illustration.
Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand was a French park designer who worked with Baron Haussmann to renovate large sections of Paris during the early years of Renoir's life. He was in charge of many of the urban parks projects undertaken during Haussmann's enterprise, including the Bois de Boulogne and the Buttes Chaumont. Alphand meticulously recorded the extensive renovations to the urban fabric of Paris in his encyclopedic work, The Promenades of Paris. These illustrations, instructions, lists of materials, and architectural plans demonstrate the degree to which the seemingly informal natural environments of the urban parks and gardens were in fact meticulously engineered reorganizations of the urban fabric: from the mathematically precise botanical specifications to the extensive public works and other infrastructure required to bring the countryside into the city.
The bathing resort of La Grenouillère outside Paris was a modern establishment that attracted the interest of the young Renoir and Claude Monet as the subject of a new kind of history painting. Rather than represent a scene of classical antiquity or biblical history, these artists searched for important historical subjects from their own time and place. The six paintings that they produced in the summer of 1869 were originally intended as plein-air (open air) studies for larger works that would later be produced in the studio. Yet these pictures, only one of which is shown in this exhibition (at left), have been taken as the touchstone for Impressionist painting—representing a scene of modern life through a novel technique that seems to capture fleeting experiences.
This exhibition is organized by the National Gallery, London, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The National Gallery, London (February 21–May 20, 2007)
The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (June 8–September 9, 2007)
The Philadelphia Museum of Art (October 4, 2007–January 6, 2008)
John Zarobell • Associate Curator of European Painting before 1900, the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Christopher Riopelle • Curator of Nineteenth-Century Paintings, National Gallery, London
Colin B. Bailey • Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Frick Collection, acting as guest curator for the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa