Sunday, 20 September 2009





Renoir’s reputation has long been in decline with intellectuals. He is seen as sugary and self-indulgent, to the point where his work gives the whole of the Impressionist Movement a bad name. The thing that has contributed to this fall from grace is, of course the late work, with its bloated nudes and curiously hot colors. Yet even the work of Renoirís best period tends to seem uneven, despite the continuing popularity of undoubted masterpiece such as La Loge [1874], now in the collection of the Courtauld Institute Galleries in London.


A new exhibition of landscapes by Renoir, now at the National Gallery in London, may do something to set this situation right. In his own lifetime Renoir’s work as a landscape painter was not thought of as being central to his career. Even committed supporters of Impressionism, such as the critic Philippe Burty, found Renoir’s landscape painting patchy and splashy, and thought he should stick to painting the figure. When one looks at the show, this verdict seems perverse.


The exhibition covers the first two decades of Renoir’s career, and thus completely excludes some of the more questionable aspects of Renoir’s work. It travels from paintings influenced by the mid-century Barbizon landscapists who prepared the ground for Impressionism, to others that are so completely free in handling that they seem to anticipate Abstract Impression. It is not surprising to discover that the vast majority of the works on view come from American museums, which would quite naturally be attuned to what Renoir was trying to do through their own close connection with the history of American visual culture.


What is surprising is to discover how early the enthusiasm for this aspect of Renoir’s work began in the United States. A magnificent opalescent seascape, full of curling waves and almost nothing else, was painted by Renoir on the coast of Normandy in 1879. By 1882 it had already entered the collection of Mrs Potter Palmer of Chicago, one of the first American patrons of Impressionism. It now belongs to the Art Institute of Chicago.


What may have attracted the attention of American collectors was the sheer exuberance of Renoir’s handling of paint, and the brilliant hues of his palette. In fact what disconcerted Burty and others like him was the fact that Renoir seemed to ignore the established rules of chiaroscuro, which had ruled landscape painter ever since the time of Claude Lorrain. In addition, he often seemed quite indifferent to established rules of composition. In one canvas, A Field of Banana Trees near Algiers, painted in 1881, Renoir completely covers the whose surface with dense pattern of banana leaves. The eye cannot focus, but is forced to shuttle restlessly back and forth. The idea of the ‘all over’ composition is well-established today, thanks chiefly to the rise of purely abstract art. Renoirís original audience was not used to be asked to look at paintings in this way,


The fact that the painting was made in Algeria, then one of France’s colonial possessions, leads one to another aspect of the exhibition, which is the fact that Renoir’s landscapes offer quite a wide spectrum of different locations. Some show Paris itself, or places close to Paris where Parisians went for recreation. Some were painted in Normandy, or else in the South of France. However, Renoir also painted in Guernsey, Venice and Naples as well as in Algeria. As the catalogue points out, travel was becoming easier and less laborious in the second half of the 19th century, thanks to an ever-growing network of railways. At the same time the painter’s equipment became easier to handle, thanks the to the fact that color-merchants were now offering oil-paint in tubes. This hugely encouraged the practice of painting en plein air, directly in front the landscape motif.


There is a tendency to believe that the Impressionists were the first to do this consistently, but this is erroneous. It is not only that  painters such as the young Corot obviously, on some occasions at least, worked in this way, it is also that the practice was already well-established among watercolorists. When discussing Mrs. Potter Palmer’s The Wave, the catalogue makes a passing reference to Turner, but the commentator doesn’t seem to realize quite what this implies. Turner, though he sometimes worked up finished watercolors from drawings and color notes made on the spot, rather than creating the finished work in one go, in the presence of the motif, clearly did a great deal of work in the presence of the motif. And so did many other English watercolorists.


One of the things one learns from the Renoir landscape exhibition is that he was surprisingly eclectic and absorbent.. His landscapes are not the work of an ignorant primitive, intent on going his own way. He clearly learned things from Monet, who was a close friend. There is a painting here which shows Monet painting in his garden at Argenteuil. Renoir also learned from Courbet, as his seascapes suggest, and, perhaps more surprisingly, from Cézanne - the proof of this assertion is easy to find in the two paintings Renoir made of Rocks near l’Estaque [1882], a typically Cézannien motif. Influences came from other sources as well. Renoir’s off-centre compositions seem to show the impact made on him by Japanese art, which he nevertheless professed he didn’t like. In the way they exaggerate foreground details, pulling them close to the eye, some of his landscapes also seem to owe more than a little to photography.


Impressionism is still too often treated as a closed episode,, within the equally enclosed, though larger, context supplied by the development of French 19th century art. That approach does not help much when one is confronted with this hugely enjoyable, but often disconcerting, exhibition.


Natural Gallery London until May 20, 2007.


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