“Time holds no nobler story, no more heroic, no more magnificent achievement than that of Renoir,” Henri Matisse once said of the later work of famous avant-gardist Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
But if there’s one thing that defines avant-garde art, it’s mixed reviews— even among artists. Only a few years before Matisse’s praise, Mary Cassatt commented on the same body of work, calling it “the most awful imaginable.” Where Matisse saw “the loveliest nudes ever painted,” Cassatt saw “pictures of enormous red women with very small heads.”
This summer, visitors to the Philadelphia Museum of Art will get to decide for themselves. The exhibition “Late Renoir” will feature works from the last 30 years of his life, from 1890 to 1919.
Known for their unique depictions of human flesh, Renoir’s later works are significantly different from other works composed throughout his lifetime. When he entered art school in the early 1860s, he immediately associated himself with artists such as Frédéric Bazille, Alfred Sisley and Claude Monet— leaders of the movement that would eventually become known as Impressionism.
However, by 1870, Renoir was pulling back from Impressionism and returning to a more traditional style. He associated himself with 18th century Rococo masters like Watteau and Boucher. Seeking to escape his impoverished lifestyle, he focused on creating art that would sell, and would be more appealing to the Salon. “Young Girls at the Piano,” a famous example of Renoir’s work from this period, will open the Philadelphia show. The vast differences between this piece and the pieces that Mary Cassatt found so repulsive are obvious even to the untrained eye.
However, it is perhaps these later works, which enchanted Matisse and disgusted Cassatt, that best define Renoir’s career. Though many of his later paintings followed themes of family and landscape, the most distinguishing works are pieces such as “The Bathers,” the panoramic painting of female nudes that concludes the Philadelphia show.
A New York Times art review written by Holland Cotter comments on the treatment of skin tones in “The Bathers,” completed the year of Renoir’s death.
“…In a sense these aren’t even really paintings of figures; they’re paintings of skin. Expanses of it fill the center of canvases, swelling and folding, minutely and specifically textured and tinted: creamy rose, poached-salmon pink, toasty brown…It’s hard to look at anything else.”
This change in Renoir’s style towards the end of his life could be attributed to a return to his art school interest in the Impressionistic style. Or it could be a result of the rheumatoid arthritis that almost cost him the use of his hands entirely— by the end of his career, Renoir was forced to paint with his brushes strapped to his wrists. Either way, one look at “The Bathers” was enough to make Matisse call it “one of the most beautiful pictures ever painted.”
This exhibition will remain on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until September 6. For more information on the exhibit or the life of Renoir, please see the New York Times article.