Renoir is an object of hatred and scorn, but the criticism is myopic.
When I said to reconsider Renoir, it’s from the last critical update, at which point, if you don’t already know, his status was solidified as a horrible painter and sexist pig-man. And while there are some cringeworthy bather paintings, if we were to judge by his best works, he’s a phenomenal painter with a unique vision.
There was even a protest at a Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, in 2015, to take down Renoir’s crappy art.
It’s supposed to be funny — everyone’s a comedian — but also true. People savagaed the artist on social media, it went viral, and even mainstream and authorative art publications picked up the story. There are articles in The Atlantic, The Smithsonian, The Guardian, The New Yorker, Huffpost, NPR, and Hyperallergic…
True, Renoir’s bathers portray women as if they were just born, as adults, billowing with baby fat, and as cognizant as kittens. His colors are pastel, and the paintings look like he used feathers instead of brushes. It’s all far too wispy, frivolous, and conventionally feminine looking. It stinks of potpourri, desert wine, pastries, and miniature dogs. When I’d go to people’s homes and there was a thick Renoir book on the coffee table, I could last as long thumbing through it as I could a catalogue for patio furniture. I was definitely more of a robots and monsters kind of a youth, and had no interest whatsoever in flowery bonnets or an art best relished in a kind of languorous boredom only experienced in the drawing-rooms of the affluent.
Slamming Renoir has been a favorite pastime of critics since 1874, when critic, Albert Wolff wrote:
“Try to explain to monsieur Renoir that a woman’s torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh with green and purple spots that indicate the state of total putrefaction in a corpse!”
I believe that characterization applied to the painting below in particular. I bought a catalogue for an Impressionist show at LACMA decades ago, and Wolff’s statement cracked me up, mostly because I could look at the painting and see the flesh just the way he described it (although that did make me appreciate the painting more, because it’s not an easy effect to achieve, even incidentally).
From a contemporary perspective Renoir represents just about everything wrong with the art of the past. He’s another dead white male, a presumed virtuoso, he objectified women into an amalgam of flesh and frills, and is a sickeningly sweet pillar in the pantheon of patriarchal art. On top of it, he botches anatomy in spectacular ways that make his girls look like dough beasts, rather than the stunning embodiments of sensuality he intended. Let me give you a stellar example of why everyone’s dumping on Renoir:
The painting above was created when the artist was in his late 70’s, nearly 40 years after he painted Luncheon of the Boating Party, and one year before he died. I mean, I wouldn’t judge Neil Young by his latest efforts, either. That might be worth taking into consideration when we measure her left elbow is being as wide as her face. I’m guessing he didn’t use a model, and the exaggerations and stylization was deliberate [ex., the boobs got a lot smaller, and the limbs a lot bigger than in the 1875 putrification portrait].
Holy crap! It’s no wonder she’s not wearing a watch!
My anacanda don’t want none if you ain’t got buns, hun! ~ Anaconda, by Nicki Minaj
I’m guessing the anaconda will be satisfied.
Renoir could, however, if he wanted, paint a nude that looks like a member of the human species. Or rather he could have when he was younger. In his late years he suffered from crippling arthritis, and Matisse once inquired about his continued painting “Why torture yourself?”.
We can have all sorts of issues with the imagery above, like why she hunts without footwear, let alone anything other than a wrap-around cloth that won’t stay on, but he obviously knows the basics of anatomy, proportion, perspective, lighting and shading…
Part 1: Renoir Sucks at Painting
The main problem with the fashionable denunciation of Renoir is that he really could paint with the best of them.
If you think Monet sucks, and can’t paint either, we can just agree to disagree, and go on our separate ways. But if you think Monet can definitely paint, whether you like water lilies or not, than consider the following. Here are two paintings each by Monet and Renoir of La Grenouillère (a resort outside of Paris). Can you tell which is by who, if you don’t already know?
The two with the boats are by Renoir. Not helpful? This one’s a Renoir:
They painted together on the bank of the river, and if you can go toe to toe with Monet when doing Impressionism, you definitely don’t suck at painting.
Dude could do buildings, horses and buggies, carriages with people sitting all about them…
Hot damn he could do some quality Impressionism. Even if Monet scoffed at the painting below, he’d have been scratching his beard defensively while doing so.
These oarsmen are good:
He went full-on Monet with this landscape:
And one more:
You have to admit, he could paint landscape. What about a still-life?
That’s competent indeed.
I’m just going to go out on a limb here and say he’s got it down.
Renoir could take it indoors as well to rival Degas, Mary Cassatt, or even Manet.
There’s are all sorts of words we can heap on this image: saccharine, syrupy, treacly, cloying, and you name it, but this is an extremely accomplished painting. Quit cringing at the cute little twin girls and the big doggy for a moment, and notice how well he painted their matching dresses, and their hair, and their shoes and socks. All that against the fur of the dog, which is on top of the texture of the rug. Look at the damned sofa with its reflective thread. Never mind the still life in the background, and the texture of the chair. The figures are rendered in convincing perspective, and the anatomy is mostly very convincing (I take issue with the placement of the girl in the middle’s ear). If nothing else, this painting is an astounding display of painted textures:, hard, soft, reflective, hair, fur, upholstery, glass, metal, and flesh…
We can agree that Mary Cassatt can paint, right? This one’s easier than the Monet Vs. Renoir test, but just for comparison purposes, which one is Cassatt, and which is Renoir:
Clearly the one on the left is the Renoir. The woman, while conspicuously exhibiting her cleavage to the delectation of the male gaze is not even looking at us. In the Cassatt image, the woman stairs directly at us, meeting our gaze, and with confidence, while the male, consigned to the background, is a passive figure obscured by his own proclivity to gaze. Oh, shit, I got it backwards.
And then there’s unmistakable Renoir: nude women bathing in lakes devoid of leeches, or even fish.
To the people that would say this is bad painting, technically speaking, try to copy it, even in just a pencil outline [and not by squaring off the image first and just filling boxes]. You will need a solid grasp of how to draw hands and feet, for starters. Look at the woman on the left’s left eye. Just how much of it does one show when the head is tilted at that angle? This isn’t beginner fodder. Rendering several people interacting convincingly in realistic space is never going to be easy, especially if it includes their full bodies. Whatever else this painting is or isn’t, it’s a very technical painting that requires an enormous amount of skill.
If I were a professional artist at in the late 1800’s, and I were in a life or death painting competition with another artist, I wouldn’t want that other artist to be Renoir in a serious mood.
Part 2: Renoir is a Sexist Pig-man
A lot of people focus on this part, and we will hear about the objectification of women, the predatory male gaze, and that the presumed audience was white men only, blah, blah, blah. I’ve been hearing this ad nauseum for a quarter century, in which case even if it were absolutely true, you might forgive me for developing a mental rash from overexposure. The two flaws of renouncing Renoir are that people who say he can’t paint are clueless about what painting is or requires, and that we are judging the art by the artist, and not the other way around.
I say that we judge the artist by the art. It’s quite egalitarian, especially if we don’t know who the artist is, what their biology is, how they identify, and so on. The proof is in the painting, I like to say. And, no, it isn’t up to the audience to determine what the art in question means (I’ve dealt with this egregious ideological blunder elsewhere). But let’s look at the evidence of Renoir’s sexist depictions of women.
No dignity whatsoever.
There’s no attention placed on her face!
Of course she’s going to open her blouse!
Why does she have to be nude?
Alright, alright, of course I’m cherry-picking the least offensive depictions, but that’s an appropriate antidote to doing the same with the most offensive. It complicates the easy conclusion that his paintings concretely indicate he only sees women as accessible, fleshy bodies, incapable of higher thought processes.
I find it odd that people who may be comfortable with the existence of hard core porn are unsettled by the likes of this:
It is a bizarre and idyllic universe, devoid of men, in which women appear to spend all their time fixing their hair, bathing, and going about nude, as if the exodus never happened. It’s like the Eloy without the Morlocks. Are we supposed to think those thick arms and glabrous Sasquatch feet were intended to be arousing? Am I to understand this painting is dangerous because it represents women as fuzzy painted people without edges? Should we presume this image has anything to do with real life, and isn’t just a heavily stylized, even abstracted fantasy? His women in landscapes are treated about the same as his fruits in a still life, just a convenient subject that’s an excuse for painting about painting.
He painted women like he painted cats.
Ah, look at dat puddy!
Huh, there’s even a boy with a cat:
Uuuuh. Meanwhile back to our regularly scheduled programing.
This would be one of his more plausibly erotic images.
Even if Renoir is guilty of a peculiar fantasy and fetishization of women, are we only offended by this particular brand of objectification and fetishization? Are we policing people’s erotic fantasies? Albeit these sorts of depictions are not flattering to the subject’s intelligence and rugged independence — and I guess you can extrapolate that somehow oppresses real women in the real world — it could be a lot worse.
When I recall who had those coffee table Renoir books, it was women. Oddly, his whole body of work seems kinda’ conventionally feminine, with all the frills, lace, curly hair, bonnets, kittens, and flowers. Despite the weird presumed eroticization of imaginary dough-womankind — personages so conspicuously painterly one would need to be turned on by paint itself to relish them (being hot for Impressionist women does suggest a rather advanced level of art connoisseurship) — the paintings don’t seem designed for male erotic consumption. Context seems to indicate I must be wrong about that, but if I didn’t know better, I’d think Renoir’s target audience was women (of his era, mind you) with significant disposable income (and not the George Eliot type).
Renoir may or may not have been a sexist above and beyond the social climate of more-than-a-century-ago, and I could have existed happily without ever seeing his series of bathers. His sensibility seems on the opposite end of the spectrum from my own, as I have been criticized for being too dark and too graphic about it. But I do appreciate when an artist manages to manifest his or her internal vision on canvas, and the widespread antipathy towards him is making me, if anything, more receptive to his oeuvre.
Now I have to regard Renoir’s paintings as representing the vision of an artist who is being banished as a pariah, and whose work people are clamoring to expunge.
Suddenly Renoir’s presumed weaknesses become his strengths. Among legions of serious painters tackling hard reality, here is a consummate craftsman celebrating happy, prosperous Parisians exulting in the pleasures of everyday life.
And despite the charges of sexism, it’s a rather feminine world he depicts:
While his renditions of women and girls are all sugar and spice and everything nice — he might as well have painted women in their places in the kitchen — it’s hard for me to think he didn’t like them.
I have to give him credit. I’d never do anything like the painting above. And that is making it strangely appealing to me. This is not the portal through which I see reality: it’s Renoir’s idyllic and sweet universe, superficially resembling Paris, and populated by happy, content, and untroubled people enjoying a hedonistic existence. In the end the campaign against Renoir has converted me to a believer.
I need his art like I need a box of donuts, but I really prefer the world with donuts in it, and Renoir.