The Kimbell Art Museum has partnered with the Clark Art Institute of Williamstown, Massachusetts, to celebrate the centenary of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s death in what is billed as the first major exhibition focusing in the human form.
Since his death, no one has concentrated on his treatment of the nude, said George T. M. Shackelford, deputy director at the Kimbell.
“We’ve done portraits. We’ve done landscapes. We’ve done all kinds of sort of subjects from modern life, et cetera, et cetera. But to treat this theme that he begins with and ends with and, which it becomes more and more preponderant as time goes on, then that was the logical thing to do,” Shackelford said.
The result is the exhibition Renoir: The Body, The Senses that opened at the Clark June 8-Sept. 22, 2019, and at the Kimbell Oct. 27-Jan. 26, 2020.
Renoir was born in 1841 in Limoges, France, and died of pneumonia on Dec. 3, 1919, aged 78, at Cagnes-sur-Mer, France.
The exhibit was co-organized by Esther Bell, Martha and Robert Lipp Chief Curator at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and Shackelford. It opened at the Clark June 8-Sept. 22, 2019, and at the Kimbell Oct. 27-Jan. 26, 2020.
The Clark has one of the best collections of Renoir painting in the world, and Bell, who Shackelford has worked with on previous projects, called to say she wanted to mount an exhibition recognizing the 100th anniversary of Renoir’s death, and asking his opinion as someone works extensively with impressionism on the subject matter.
In Shackelford’s mind, there was no question.
Over the course of his long career, Renoir continually turned to the human figure for artistic inspiration.
The body – particularly the nude – was the defining subject of Renoir’s artistic practice from his early days as a student copying the old masters in the Louvre to the early 20th century, when his revolutionary style of painting inspired the masters of modernism.
Studying Renoir’s artistic journey can be controversial – both real and fake.
The fake, Shackelford said, is generated by “a very clever young man” – Max Geller – who set up Instagram account called Renoir Sucks At Painting.
He and some followers will stage a pseudo protest in front of a museum with signs that say things like “ReNOir” or God Hates Renoir,” or Shackelford favorite: “When will curators be held responsible?”
Counter-protesters also sometimes show up. One photograph shows a sign in front of the Metropolitan that says, “You’ll take our Renoir when you pry it from our cold dead hands.”
The more serious discussion, he said, is whether Renoir advanced or declined in his art over the course of his career.
“In our modern end of the 20th beginning of the 21st century culture, we have a hard time dealing with this level of excess of body. There’s too much body, too much color, too many wrinkles, too much flab,” Shackleford said.
He doesn’t agree.
If the viewer gets in the Renoir groove in the beginning of this exhibition and pays close attention to him as time goes on, then the shift from early figures of about 1910 to later figures is not a surprise or a shock, he said.
“It’s directional without being maybe strictly linear. I think it curves back on itself plenty of times,” he said, but the ending painting are to Renoir what the late life water lilies were for Monet.
The exhibit is designed exactly to allow the visitor to follow that evolution and reach their own conclusions.
The exhibit reconsiders Renoir as a constantly evolving artist whose style moved from Realism into luminous Impressionism, culminating in the modern classicism of his last decades.
An international roster of exceptional loans including Boy with a Cat (1868, Musée d’Orsay), Study: Torso, Effect of Sun (c. 1876, Musée d’Orsay), Seated Bather (c. 1883–84, Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums) and The Bathers (1918–19, Musée d’Orsay), as well as major contributions from the Clark’s renowned collection of the artist’s work, survey the breadth of Renoir’s career.
“One hundred years after his death, Renoir still courts controversy,” said Shackelford. “We expect today’s audiences will be both inspired and challenged by the magnificent images of the nude that we’re bringing together … and we’re looking forward to a lively discussion.”
As a part of that discussion, the Kimbell is presenting Open Studio: Figure Drawing Sessions, inspired by Renoir: The Body, The Senses, a free studio series on selected Saturdays from 1 to 3 p.m.
These come-and-go programs will take place on Nov. 2, Dec. 7 and Jan. 11, during the special exhibition. Each session will feature a different guest artist, who will lead 30-minute informal sketching exercises with clothed models in the light-filled Louis I. Kahn Building lobby, the Kimbell said. No prior experience is necessary; all ages are welcome. Sketching materials and stools are provided. Admission to the main exhibit is not included.
The exhibition at the Clark met with critical acclaim.
“On the centennial of his death, his achievements are still something art historians, feminists, artists and critics argue about. His work has not settled quietly into the canon, especially not his nudes, and most especially not his late nudes. There is something invigorating about this state of affairs, which I don’t think can be claimed for any other leading Impressionist painter,” said Roberta Smith, the co-chief art critic at the New York Times.
Smith said in a review that the staging museums have waded “fearlessly into the fray and, accompanied by well-argued positions in the catalog, emerges from it largely intact, and in fact in new territory.”
“Our exhibition will survey Renoir’s long career through the lens of the single subject that defines his legacy,” Bell said in the Kimbell announcement. “It’s the subject that most compellingly demonstrates how truly radical – and so often brilliant – he was.”
The exhibition investigates a number of themes central to today’s consideration of Renoir’s art, chief among them his engagement with the long tradition of the female nude as depicted in antique sculpture, in painting since the Renaissance and as espoused in his time by the École des Beaux- Arts.
Further themes include the concept of the female body and the male gaze in the 19th century, Impressionist figure painting and the effects of light on flesh, Renoir’s talent as a draftsman, the relationship between Renoir’s treatment of the body and that of such contemporaries as Gustave Courbet, Edgar Degas, and Paul Cézanne and Renoir’s late – still much debated – paintings and sculpture, works that inspired the next generation of modern artists.
The artist’s critical reception – then and now – is explored in the exhibition and in the accompanying catalogue.
During his lifetime, Renoir was idolized by artists including Pablo Picasso, Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse, as well as by renowned collectors Gertrude and Leo Stein, Josse and Gaston Bernheim-Jeune, Albert Barnes and Sterling and Francine Clark.
But he also experienced brutal criticism. In 1876, critic Albert Wolff wrote in Le Figaro, “Would someone kindly explain to M. Renoir that a woman’s torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh with the green and purplish blotches that indicate a state of complete putrefaction in a corpse”—referring to Study: Torso, Effect of Sun, now regarded as one of the high points of Impressionism, the Kimbell said.
Renoir remains a polarizing figure worthy of scholarly investigation, unabashed contemplation and reconsideration by contemporary audiences.
Renoir: The Body, The Senses
Oct. 27-Jan. 26, 2020
The Kimbell Art Museum
Fort Worth 76107
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Friday and Sunday: Noon-8 p.m.
Exhibition admission: $14-18; children under 6 free
Admission to the Kimbell’s collection is always free.