Why Do People Love to Hate Renoir?

Impressionist master or indulgent misogynist?  Why do people either love Renoir or love to hate him?


Late last year, a group calling itself “Renoir Sucks at Painting” protested at both the MFA in Boston and the Met in New York City asking those museums to remove all works by French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir from their walls.  They later drew up a petition asking the White House to have Renoir stripped from the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  The group’s founder, Max Geller, claims that a visit to The Barnes Foundation, home to 181 works by Renoir, convinced him that Renoir’s paintings were “empty calorie-laden steaming piles” and inspired him to turn that hate into action.  A new film Renoir: Revered and Reviled examines how Renoir still inspires such hatred in some and love in others almost a century after his death by taking a deeper look at that Barnes’ collection Geller loathed.  Was Renoir an Impressionist master or an indulgent misogynist?  Why do people either love Renoir or love to hate him?

  • Image: Photo of Pierre-Auguste Renoir from Renoir: Revered and Reviled.  Image courtesy of SpectiCast.
  • The film’s writer-director Phil Grabsky quickly casts the two sides of the debate, with Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott arguing for the anti-Renoir prosecution and Barnes curator Martha Lucy leading the defense.  Where the “revolted” Kennicott sees “bovine women without a thought in their head,” Lucy sees Renoir (shown above) using “flesh as the site of experimentation” that would inspire later modern artists.  What makes Renoir: Revered and Reviled important is how it presents the evidence of the case to you the viewer to decide for yourself.  Even if you can’t get to The Barnes Foundation in person, this movie (appearing nationwide on April 21, 2016) brings the Renoir to you.

  • Image: Photo of the exterior of The Barnes Foundation from Renoir: Revered and Reviled.  Image courtesy of SpectiCast.
  • Why is the Barnes (shown above) the perfect place to debate Renoir?  First of all, it holds the largest collection of Renoir’s work in the world outside of France.  Secondly, its founder, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, passionately collected Renoir’s work despite not liking Impressionism in general.  In fact, Renoir’s late period work, after his break with Impressionism, comprises almost all of Barnes’ collection of the artist, so you can judge Renoir fairly regardless of your feelings, good or bad, about Impressionism.  Finally, if you’re going to tangle with a controversy, there’s no more controversial educational foundation in America than the Barnes, whose move from its original location in 2012 was called everything from “disastrous” to a simple “copy and paste job” from one place to another, reproducing the original galleries and original intent exactly. 

  • Image: Dr. Albert Coombes Barnes (1872-1951) American inventor and art collector c. 1930. (Photo by APIC/Getty Images)
  • Barnes and Renoir were a match made in art history heaven.  Just as Renoir moved away from conventional Impressionism towards something different, Barnes (shown above) burst onto the scene looking to build an art collection and found an educational institution equally different.  Grabsky tells the life stories of Barnes and Renoir together to show this kinship and symbiotic relationship.  Just as Barnes wanted to establish an educational institution founded on the philosophy that Old and New Masters belonged together and should be hung in “ensembles” emphasizing connections and relationships, Renoir—the last of the Old and first of the New Masters—began painting in a way perfectly suited to Barnes’ mission.  Beginning with a young Renoir lunching in the Louvre to study Corot, Delacroix, and others, the film ends with an elder Renoir giving advice to Matisse and influencing Picasso.  If you hate Renoir but love Matisse and Picasso (two other stars of the Barnes collection), this film will make you look again, and again.

  • Image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, French, 1841–1919. Nude in a Landscape (Nu dans un paysage), c. 1917. Oil on canvas, 32 x 24 1/8 in. (81.3 x 61 cm). BF975, The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: © 2015 The Barnes Foundation.
  • Renoir: Revered and Reviled most of all makes you want to look closer.  Glance quickly at the very late Renoir Nude in a Landscape (Nu dans un paysage) (shown above) and you see one of Kennicott’s “bovine women” lumbering through a blurry background.  Look closer (and listen to Lucy explain) and you recognize Renoir distorting and experimenting with ways of representing the human form that we expect and accept more from Picasso than from his predecessors. Look closer at the background and you see Renoir attempting decorative effects that Kennicott would call cheap, but that Matisse would be praised for.  Where some see a nefarious objectification of women in Renoir’s work, others see simply an artist interested in the potential of painting over questions of content.  In other words, the models are meant to be an object in the same way Cézanne objectified mountains or fruit or Monet objectified water lilies.  If you revile Renoir for his choice of subject, you might want to reconsider.

  • Image: Still photo of frame of Renoir painting in Barnes Foundation collection from Renoir: Revered and Reviled.  Image courtesy of SpectiCast.
  • Whereas the deceptive simplicity of late Renoir often leads to misunderstanding, the deceptive simplicity of Renoir: Revered and Reviled leads to greater understanding not only of the artist, but also of the love-hate debate.  Just as the move of the Barnes in 2012 led to greater access for the public, this film will lead to greater access (and, hopefully, greater appreciation) for the Barnes and Renoir.  Writer-director Phil Grabsky tells a clear, compelling story, but also knows when to step back and let the pictures do the talking.  By the end, Renoir: Revered and Reviled reframes the Renoir debate and presents a convincing case against the haters.  I only hope someone sends Max Geller a ticket.

  • Video: Trailer to Renoir: Revered and Reviled.
  • [Image at top of post: Two people in front of paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Cézanne at The Barnes Foundation in scene from Renoir: Revered and Reviled.  Image courtesy of SpectiCast.]
  • [Many thanks to SpectiCast for providing me with a review copy of Renoir: Revered and Reviled, which appears in select theaters across the United States on April 21, 2016, with encores starting June 5, 2016.  Click here to find a theater near you.]
  • [Please follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob) for more art news and views.]
  • Related Articles
    Playlists
    Keep reading Show less

    Five foods that increase your psychological well-being

    These five main food groups are important for your brain's health and likely to boost the production of feel-good chemicals.

    Mind & Brain

    We all know eating “healthy” food is good for our physical health and can decrease our risk of developing diabetes, cancer, obesity and heart disease. What is not as well known is that eating healthy food is also good for our mental health and can decrease our risk of depression and anxiety.

    Keep reading Show less

    For the 99%, the lines are getting blurry

    Infographics show the classes and anxieties in the supposedly classless U.S. economy.

    What is the middle class now, anyway? (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
    Politics & Current Affairs

    For those of us who follow politics, we’re used to commentators referring to the President’s low approval rating as a surprise given the U.S.'s “booming” economy. This seeming disconnect, however, should really prompt us to reconsider the measurements by which we assess the health of an economy. With a robust U.S. stock market and GDP and low unemployment figures, it’s easy to see why some think all is well. But looking at real U.S. wages, which have remained stagnant—and have, thus, in effect gone down given rising costs from inflation—a very different picture emerges. For the 1%, the economy is booming. For the rest of us, it’s hard to even know where we stand. A recent study by Porch (a home-improvement company) of blue-collar vs. white-collar workers shows how traditional categories are becoming less distinct—the study references "new-collar" workers, who require technical certifications but not college degrees. And a set of recent infographics from CreditLoan capturing the thoughts of America’s middle class as defined by the Pew Research Center shows how confused we are.

    Keep reading Show less