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Sensing the Body – The Clark explores Renoir nudes

Pierre-Auguste Renoir is known as a painter of optimism; his scenes fill with light and color. Adriatic blue water laps close enough to touch. Men and women sit at café tables, laughing under lime trees and lanterns. Couples waltz outdoors on warm nights.

Renoir’s work forms the core of the Clark Art institute’s permanent collection, and on the centennial of his death, the museum considers an aspect of his work no other exhibit has focused on before: the nude. “Renoir: The Body, the Senses” opens June 8 with a broad look across the arc of his career and includes 70 paintings, drawings, pastels, and sculptures by the artist, as well as works by his predecessors, contemporaries, and followers.

Renoir’s nude subjects are almost always women: young, fair, sunlit, often relaxing in or by the water. They have caused delight, controversy, and conversation in his lifetime and today. They beckon to people who view them as active and beautiful or as passive reflections of desire.

He painted more than 200 nudes between 1900 and 1919 but had begun much earlier to master the human form, as a student in the 1860s. He came from a working-class family that he supported as an artisan in the porcelain factories of Limoges. He put himself through night school, surrounded by rich friends, and entered the studio with a need to prove himself, says the Clark’s senior curator Esther Bell.

Renoir drew from models in class and from Greek and Roman sculptures at the Louvre, where he could get in free on weekends. There, he found the colorists—Titian, Rubens, Delacroix. The first painting the Louvre bought from François Boucher, Diana Leaving Her Bath, left him breathless. “Renoir called it his first love,” Bell says.

François Boucher (French, 1703–1770), Diana Leaving Her Bath, 1742. Oil on canvas, 22 7/16 × 28 3/4 in. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Acquired in 1852. Inv. 2712

His influences were not all mythological. He revered Courbet, known for his realism in the 1840s and 1850s, and Renoir’s early work shows both romance and modern life: a bather with a small dog, a nymph by a stream. He moved from the official Salons run by the academies to the Impressionists, who moved against the current and held shows from the 1860s to the 1880s. It was in that time his work became lambent, ephemeral, dissolving in sunlight.

He painted his Blonde Bather (image at top) and Onions (both in the Clark’s collection) the same year, 1881, on the same journey. He was 40 and taking the trip to Italy that most of his contemporaries had taken as young men. He encountered Italian Renaissance paintings up close; Raphael and the classical grandeur of sculpture awed him.

Blonde Bather, floating in the bay of Naples, was his 20-year-old mistress Aline Charigot. She later became his wife, but when he painted her here she was his lover and his model. Lise Tréhot, Renoir’s first love, also modeled for many nudes for him.Desire plays here. Martha Lucy, curator of Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation, writes frankly in the Clark exhibition’s catalog of Renoir presenting women for the pleasure of gazing at them—for sexual pleasure, erotic allure, an invitation to caress.

Blonde Bather’s dreaming expressions have prompted some art historians to wonder whether the woman in the painting, basking in the sun, feels any of the sensual pleasure he captures in the golden light, the blue Mediterranean water, and the long hair falling on her bare shoulder. Tamar Garb, professor of history of art at University College, London, argues in the catalog that Renoir’s women exist “without thought, conflict or even self-consciousness.”

Suzanne Valadon might have an answer in her own work here. She was a model and became a highly successful painter, one of few women at the time to paint nudes, men and women, and the women were not idealized.  “They’re real women, not disguising their imperfections,” says Bell, who has spent time researching Renoir’s models and and getting to know their lives.

Suzanne Valadon (French, 1865–1938), Two Figures (After the Bath, Neither White nor Black), 1909. Oil on cardboard, 39 3/4 x 32 5/16 in. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art modern/Centre de creation industrielle, Paris. Bequest of Doctor Robert le Masle, 1974, AM 1974-122. © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

The Paintings can raise questions about power dynamics between men and women, painter and model, a woman’s background and class, mind and soul. Questions are raised on style, taste, gender, and identity, Bell says. “They have certainly been at the forefront of our thinking as we have worked on this exhibition.” 

The subjects in Renoir’s paintings are all young—some in their teens or younger, jeunes filles, young girls, is the titles of those works, as opposed to jeunes femmes, young women. Their rounded faces, small hands, and slight build suggest they are not yet grown. They are mostly clothed among naked nymphs and bathers; their gowns slide from slim shoulders; they sit quietly.

“It was common for teenage girls to work as models, either clothed or nude—in the Académie des Beaux-Arts from 1863 as well as in private studios and workshops,” says Bell.

As his style becomes more Impressionistic, the women become less recognizable. When he moves to the south of France in the 1890s, he shifts again. Bodies take on mass and volume, but lack form and structure. In his last years, as his sons fought in the trenches and he stiffened with rheumatoid arthritis until he needed help to pick up a brush, Renoir held on to idealized images of sunlight and happiness. “He was tired after World War I,” Bell says. “Death has no place in this scene.” 

So his image evolves, brightly colored and complex—an old man painting young women—an artist with pain in his hands, painting light. 




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