If you had asked me last week about the art of 19th-century French painter Pierre-August Renoir, I would immediately have thought of picnics and dances, rosy-cheeked children and voluptuous nudes. However, after seeing “Renoir: Landscapes,” an exhibition currently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I now have a sense of the broader scope of his work and his life-long attachment to impressionistic landscapes. It is exactly what the curators hoped would happen.
Renoir once commented, “Why shouldn’t art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world.” And indeed, his landscapes present a lovely, tranquil world, a carefully cultivated wash of color and light where misery and rain clouds seem impossible. In the midst of the Industrial Revolution’s rise of a middle class with leisure time and mobility, Renoir captures the vitality of gardens and renovated city streets, making every moment seem idyllic and care-free. His gestural brushstrokes convey the experience of being in a particular setting, manifesting the movement of wind and sea spray and the rustle of leaves as well as the stillness of flowers and sunlight. Associate curator John Zarobell relates Renoir to his contemporary and comrade Claude Monet, suggesting that if Monet was concerned with vision (“only an eye” to use Cezanne’s famous quote), then Renoir was concerned with feeling, able to “give you hay fever” just by looking at his grassy fields.
The curators organized the exhibition into loosely chronological themes, so that each gallery explores a certain aspect of Renoir’s landscape oeuvre. To provide a context, the entry room contains photographs and illustrations from the 19th century, showing concurrent attitudes toward landscapes and landscape painters. At the beginning of Renoir’s career, landscapes remained a lesser art form, usually considered sketches for paintings of historical, classical, or biblical stories. The figure was preeminent; Nature (with a capital N) supported the figure by giving it context and an emotional backdrop. As Renoir and his Impressionist colleagues challenged the conventions of the art academy, they pulled landscapes into a position of prominence and reversed the figure-ground relationship. The first gallery highlights the role of figures in Renoir’s landscapes, with a mix of outdoor portraits where a clearly defined figure dominates (“Woman with a parasol and small child on a sunlit hillside,” 1874) and panoramas where groups of figures meld into the background (“La Grenouillère,” 1869). In these examples, figures remain important but begin to integrate into the surrounding environment. They aren’t telling grand stories, but acting out everyday life with an emphasis on immediate experience.
The next room flips the coin, showing only “pure landscapes,” where figures are incidental or entirely absent. As a newly emerging style, these landscape-only paintings benefited from Renoir’s innovations of capturing movement and physical sensation. The billowing clouds in “The Gust of Wind” (c. 1872) seem to be rushing across the horizon, bending branches and rippling fields of grass. As modern viewers, accustomed to figureless artwork, we may miss the significance of these pieces that departed from the conventions of the time to portray a world unencumbered by human heroism or mythology, a purely “in the moment” existence.
The “Impressionist Landscape” room may feel the most familiar to many visitors, with its compositions combining the natural world with human structures and activities in a burst of light and painterly gesture. “The Skiff (La Yole)” (1875) portrays all of the benefits of the Industrial Revolution through the language of Impressionist painting, showing suburbanites out for a leisurely row past a well-manicured country estate with a train approaching from the background. Renoir painted several of the pieces in this room side-by-side with Monet, and you can observe their mutual exuberance for and exploration of their newfound style. In the next gallery of cityscapes and gardens, you see additional evidence of their friendship in Renoir’s painting “Claude Monet painting in his garden at Argenteuil” (c.1873), a self-reflective, nearly deconstructionist look at the experience of landscape painters of the time. Monet stands just outside his urban garden fence, rows of houses in the background, focusing on his personal corner of natural beauty.
Cityscapes and gardens give way to a room devoted to seascapes, as Renoir took his first trips to the coast, and continue with paintings from his travels to Algeria and Italy. Renoir was able to modify his language of choppy brushstrokes and vibrant colors to express his experiences in these foreign locales. In “The Jardin D’Essai, Algiers” (1881), he captures the movement of an alley of palm trees, unfamiliar flora for a Parisian, with an explosion of gold and green lines of paint. Several paintings, again, show his relationships with his contemporaries, and the works created alongside Cezanne and Monet reflect the influence of their styles while remaining unequivocally Renoir-esque.
Even in the last years of his life (shown in the “Coda” room), when rheumatoid arthritis so crippled his body that paintbrushes had to be strapped to the backs of his hands, Renoir had himself carried outside to paint the landscape. He remained committed to observing and rendering the world around him. By focusing on everyday vistas and familiar activities, Renoir and the Impressionists declared that modern life IS history, paving the way for future generations of artists to explore the immediate world around them. The Museum’s exhibit puts that transformation into context, fleshing out the social and cultural implications of landscape painting in the 19th century and creating a very “pretty” world indeed.
By: Melinda Steffy, for The Bulletin, October 2, 2007