Renoir: Saving the Best for Last
A fat lot of good it would do if I told you that Titian’s courtesans make you want to caress them. Some day you’ll see the Titians for yourself, and if they have no effect on you, then you don’t understand the first thing about painting. And I wouldn’t be able to help you.—Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Paint with joy—with the same joy that you would make love to a woman.—Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Brush securely lashed to his hand, cigarette lit, palette spread and close. Renoir loads his brush and begins touching the canvas, poking it really. Eye trained on model. Pause. Load Brush. Pause. Touch canvas . . . repeat. I imagine each touch is located right next to its predecessor. Slowly gathering strength by number. He paints as if he has all the time in the world. Alert and patient he won’t be hurried. His leading anxiety is that he might miss something. The brush strokes leave strands of light, lust, and joy in their wake.
You can feel Renoir’s nervous system, his heartbeat, and excitement as you comb the surface of his The Bathers (1918 – 1919). Perhaps that may account for the discomfort/disgust some viewers experience. Too Much Information. It’s as if you have walked in on lovers too engaged to notice the intrusion. Renoir is perfectly willing to be messy and unapologetic in his pursuit of connection. His unflagging belief in the power of joy can be difficult to accept or take seriously. There is no tasteful tidying up and no hedge-betting irony to temper his sincerity. Late Renoir uses no artful devices to make us more comfortable. For those willing to suspend long held prejudices against beautiful, joyful painting, Renoir has much to give and it is rare.
Renoir was committed and curious about painting’s progress and his generation’s pursuit of Modernity. He was also a passionate student/lover of painting history. His bathers are the younger sisters of late Titian and late Rembrandt. This familial connection is instantly apparent but it does nothing to ruin our surprise on first seeing The Bathers. They feel like newly landed martian maidens, so strange yet somehow . . . family.
A good friend and painter recently suggested that painting has come far enough for the 21st Century to jettison ideas and rules about composition, light, and space. But that’s tricky. Without these “rules” we wouldn’t be able spot the weird left turn Renoir’s maidens take or experience his groundbreaking derring-do.
Brushes tied to gnarled hands, another heady French cigarette lit. Ready to go for broke. Using everything he’s learned and seen during a lifetime of painting. Renoir’s gift at the end of it all is his ability to paint thoughtlessly, joyfully, and completely free of censor. Rare.