July 8, 2007

Renoir at the National Gallery, Ottawa

I was pleasantly surprised by the Renoir exhibition at the National Gallery. With the best will in the world I find it hard to regard most of Renoir as anything but superior decoration, and perhaps the reason is he's most famous for portraits. With the exception of one interesting self-reflexive piece in this show--a canvas showing a landscape with a painter, off to the side, painting it (this being Monet)--the figures in his drawings are stiff, overposed, not sensitively handled. But most of them are pure landscape and he shows far more sensitivity in portraying earth, water, sun and the elements moving through it. I wrote down impressions of the paintings that particularly struck me:

Laundry Boat on the Seine near Paris (1871) grey, wintry scene--blackish brown boat, touched up here and there with white, bobbing on grey water. The sidenote speculates that it was painted during the period of the commune (Mar.-May 1871) which would mean winter was hanging in that year. It's certainly a scene full of sympathy for ordinary workers such as might have joined the communards at the barricades if they'd been in Paris. Luckily he is able to portray their situation indirectly, since if he'd painted the family living on the boat they'd likely have come out like the extremely posed couple in

La Promenade 1870 Man in working clothes gives hand to woman to help her up path. Not a very exciting canvas.

Duck Pond 1873 (1) Pink sky exploding behind leaved and partly leaved trees along the bank of a river. Ducks on the pond perfect flutterballs of white with black crowns. (2) I was mistaken. The pink sky is the roof of a house otherwise barely visible, but more so in the second study (roof now orange). Mix of ducks and swans on the pond (the black crowned white feathered birds in the previous scene being, perhaps, Dwans.)

Claude Monet Painting at His Garden at Argenteuil (c. 1873) Self-reflexive, technique mirrors Monet's. (Same might be said of the two Duck Ponds. Mostly Renoir worked alone, but in that case he and Monet were painting side by side.)

The Bridge at Chateau c. 1875 Sunlight on a river, bridge and town behind pauses to have its picture taken (much the same might be said of Les Grands Boulevard and La Square de la Trinite, same year).

The Wave 1879 Waterscape, no land visible. Portrait of a storm. (The Wave 1882 is far less interesting, a mess of paint in search of a point of view.)

Landscape at Wargemount 1879 Orgy of colour, red deepening to purple, orange, amber, controlled firebursts, everything, the greens particularly, heightened as colour is under partly overcast sky especially if there has recently been rain.

Wheatfield 1879 Again brilliant colours (subdued ripples of gold through the light brown of the wheatfield predominating in foreground) under a moody sky full of assembling/dispersing clouds.

I hope somebody other than Renoir titled Lady With Parasol and a Small Child--it seems an odd order to put them in.

Algerian Landscape "The Ravine of the Wild Woman" 1881 Spiky blue aloes in foreground, background an indiscriminate sweep of bushes and flowers, all alight, all swaying under the force of wind? heat haze? Dizzy uphill perspective.

The Jardin d'Essai, Algiers 1881 Eloquent palms, brown with bursts or red or (the new growth ones nearer earth) verdant green, accompany their shadows across the parched sand on a promenade.

Banks of the Seine 1880-81 Pink sky traverses groves of willows and poplars to reappear as pink sheen on water, crosses wild sprays and thickets of bush and early growth forest to become a pink pathway through.

Fog on Guernsey 1883 Another study of light breaking through obscuring elements with powerful force. (Fog visible mainly over the water, not unlike puffs of steam above a tea kettle.)

The Bay of Naples (Morning) 1881 Mist burning off at sunrise. Complicated crisscross patterns of ships with furled sails in the harbour. Volcano smoking just to the left of centre in background?

Rocky Crags at L'Estaque 1882 As in others of his paintings, trees bursting with leaves above trunks that are vivid red. The hills a near white, interposed by what must be growths of forest or bush, but read at this distance like stands of moss or lichen.

C 2007 Martin Heavisides


Chancelucky said...

What's wrong with superior decoration?

I'm not sure that painting is necessarily something that must be thought through. I don't even know if Renoir ever pretended to much of anything else.

I've always thought that part of the appeal of most of the impressionists is that you can hang the stuff or copies of it in your living room without upsetting anyone.

Martin Heavisides said...

That's certainly not the appeal of Van Gogh, or the great precursor of the Impressionists, Turner. It's possible to regard Monet or Cezanne as nothing more than superior decoration, but only by missing a great deal of what's going on in them. Nothing particularly wrong with superior decoration, but it's not as satisfying to me as painting that illuminates, if it's not too pretentious a word, the 'soul' of its subject. I was pleased to discover that Renoir (perhaps only early in his career) could do that.

Chancelucky said...

how do you know when a painting "Illuminates"?

Martin Heavisides said...

Oh sure, ask all the easy questions. I suppose what I mean (or if this is an altogether new point, what I feel) is that Renoir enters into the spirit of landscape in a way that he rarely if ever does the people he portrays. Either that or I enter into the spirit of his landscapes more deeply, and miss something that's there in the portraits but eludes me. The only reason I'm inclined to doubt that is the number of portraitists apart from Renoir, including Cezanne and Van Gogh at least among the Impressionists (perhaps Degas above all, if it's expressive portraiture you're talking about) who do move me deeply--because I sense the people in them as presences, not merely compositions.

Chancelucky said...

Of all the impressionists, Renoir may have had the most Chinese view of painting. The people essentially part of the landscape even in his portrait and nature or even color and light itself were the actual subjects he sought to illuminate.
I think of him as being outside the humanist/romantic tradition of western painting. To me it's vaguely reminiscent of Debussy's approach to melody.

Martin Heavisides said...

Turner consistently applies Chinese perspective in his paintings--such as his great study of the battle of Waterloo, in which a middleground littered with corpses is fronted by a peaceful foreground and backed by a breathtaking skyscape. It seems more the product of a systematic philosophy in Turner, but I'd certainly agree there are elements of that in Renoir.