Is Renoir a good painter?

Grappling with Renoir

As part of the basics, I studied Renoir in art school. During the time I studied Renoir and the rest of the impressionists, I was spending my summers touching up decorative paintings from China. It was in that nondescript warehouse where I touched up ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party’ at least a hundred times, perhaps more.

Pierre-August Renoir

This painting always bothered me and in my little art school addled mind, was no different than the countless paintings of sea oats by the beach or little mountain cabins I touched up alongside it. The painting was pure fluff. The subject matter was bland and lacking any spark of interest. The breezy, unhindered nonchalance of the crowd confused me. The colors, the reliance on pink and his fluttery pastel touches throughout drove me insane. If there was a point to the painting, it went over my head. Renoir always seemed to be a neutral observer, happily painting such saccharine scenes with wild abandon.

That’s how my relationship started with Renoir. Every painting I’d see in person began with a similar shrug. Every flower laden field gently interrupted with a small child, sometimes embraced by a mother stabbed at my heart. All those pinks, pastels, his preponderance of highlights softening everything, obliterating lines and form into a hazy mess of color. Those fucking pink cheeks! All those roly-poly figures! Renoir, an artist with seemingly nothing to say but lucratively appreciated by Museum gift shops the world over. As a painter, Renoir became the bane of my existence.

But yet…

Scroll up and look back at the ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party’. Look at the subtle color shifts in the canopy hanging overhead at the top left of the painting. Bonnard’s dizzying bathroom floors evoke the same effect. The lake and purple-ly green-blue brush painted with the expert skill in Monet’s waterlilly paintings. The forearm and hand of the man in the bottom right. There are moments the mastery of Renoir is absolutely undeniable.

The real truth is when I see a Renoir in person the same exact thing happens over and over. There’s that moment right before my eyes glaze over and I sink into his soft focus, pink abyss. Just as my eyes dart for the next painting like it’s a life preserver, I hesitate. Renoir’s skill draws me in. His insane talent with a brush, his masterful application and mixing of color, the surface of his paintings wins me over. Every time. I get lost in his brushstrokes, basking in his touch. His colors take on a life of their own when examined, becoming interesting when the greater context is lost. 

It’s a frustrating moment to be honest. Imagery that I absolutely detest, suddenly being lost in the genius of his brushwork and paint application. I will never say a good thing about the women and children and babies that he paints. I largely find his backgrounds, lush, soft focus foliage interspersed with flowers acting as bolts of color to be hard to digest. In many of his works, they are rushed and quickly punched in. His portraits fall flat, with a semi focused portrait thrown against a less focused background. His crowd scenes lack any intensity or meaning. Party pictures taken on a disposable camera often hold more interest and intrigue than his group paintings. 

Rudderless and Without A View

His paintings exist in a world without an opinion. The bland, inoffensive ‘niceness’ of Mickey Mouse as a character stands in unison with Renoir’s depiction of people. Warm, pleasant and nice is not a world waiting to be discovered. The world that Renoir paints tells all of its secrets – it’s pretty, people are friendly here, everything in the world is good, plenty, and pretty. His paintings ask of nothing of the viewer, except to gawk and comment about the healthy pretty cheeks. 

worst Renoir
Dance at Bougival

It’s so frustrating seeing and knowing how well Renoir paints that he boldly chose such wildly uninteresting subject matter. If vanilla could be a painting, a Renoir would grimace at all the flavor. There’s no exploration taken in the entirety of Renoir’s works. Personally, one of the worst Renoirs hangs at Boston’s impressionist obsessed MFA. Always spotlighted in shows, catalogs and the gift shop, ‘Dance at Bougival’ spotlights all the worst Renoir tendencies. 

First off, it’s a sappy painting of a couple dancing at an outdoor gathering. The likeness of the man to Van Gogh always bothered me, but more than that the focus of the painting seems to be the woman’s pinkish dress. Renoir clearly loved painting the folds, shadows and fine stitching of the dress, as it’s by far the most accomplished part of the painting. The man’s blue jacket and pants are hastily sketched in, until you realize how lazily sketched in the rest of the painting is.

The canopy of trees filling the top portion are quick lines, barely blending colors, barely rising past ‘underpainting’. Despite the crowd fitting the tight negative space surprisingly well, it feels like Renoir’s attention was just going through the motions. The ground is littered with cigarette butts and an inexplicable blue flower, almost admitting the vapid ground plane. On top of everything the clashing red bonnet on the woman’s head brings the cool proceedings to a fingernail on chalkboard halt.

Bright Spots

When you strip away his ill subject choices, the true hints of exploration and passion of the artist are revealed. In “Seascape’ and ‘Moulin Huet Bay Guernsey’ you can see what stripping away the empty sentimentality of his works can create. You no longer have to cringe at schmaltzy mothers and children, or half hearted attempts to create a lively atmosphere with figures posed without feeling. Instead, these paintings are just two examples of just how well Renoir is able to use color and mark to make actual art. 

I’ve told friends and written it in various ways on this website, but art is messy, and should be raw and have some sense of exploration. It’s the rough edges and weird little paths artists follow that drop the artist and viewer off in different, unexpected places. Art should be challenging, and should be hesitant to tell the viewer everything. Not being obtuse, but open for mystery and wonder. Renoir’s figurative work largely misses this. He was notoriously defiant about wanting to make ‘beautiful’ paintings and held his critics at arm’s length.That’s admirable, and also part of the process, but being blind to missing the target is tragic.It was Renoir’s adherence to his singular standard of ‘beauty’ that locked his art up into a lifeless jumble of dolor and sappiness that makes the work impenetrable and dull. 

The Art of the Filter

Artists always should try to fight doing what’s easy. If you find that using cadmium orange and viridian green on a face in a portrait works, that’s great. If an artist just lays that down in every painting, it just becomes a cold process. The rote idea of taking a subject and adding their ‘artistic filter’, be it viridian green, or slavishly following another artist’s work without putting in the work and understanding how that artist arrived there is ever increasingly hollow and unimportant. Especially today, it’s so easy to create a superficial body of work that meets the audience’s expectation of ‘art’.

When the artist sets out to create ‘art’ in this manner, they’re simply just creating mindless products, with a tag of ‘beauty’ attached. Art demands more, otherwise the artist is just painting by number, following the same formula. Ultimately, artists who don’t push boundaries, study art and constantly make their own mistakes are creating the equivalent of some mindless criminal procedural TV show, or a franchise of superhero movies. Franchises are popular! People love them! But the truth is, they aren’t great. And there’s nothing true, beautiful, interesting or challenging in any of them. They don’t ask anything of you besides half your attention while flipping through your phone. Art should rise beyond that.

Failing in Art

Long ago, a teacher once said that style comes from your limitations. I’ll go one further and say that all great art comes from failure. The most interesting paintings are always the odd ones sitting in the corner of the studio, when you never have any idea what to make of them. Sometimes they are incomplete, sometimes abandoned, but in a way, they finished themselves. It’s learning from those odd experiences that make the next work more robust.

Failure isn’t indicative of lack of skill, it’s instead a signifier of taking risks and challenging  yourself and your audience. There is beauty in those moments, sometimes fleeting and never recaptured, sometimes harnessed and applied in future works.

Renoir, as talented and incredible an artist as he is, never rose to the challenge. His paintings dissolve like sugar in a bowl of kids cereal. While that sugary milk tastes great, all it does is make you fat, destroy your palate and want more of the same. Renoir learned how to deliver that perfectly.