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In His Rosy Glow

A show traces Renoir's surprising influence on American painters

June 30, 2002|SCARLET CHENG

SAN DIEGO — History is attached to the back of major paintings--small tags identify the artist and the title, of course, but additional labels from museums and art galleries record where and when these works have been shown, a kind of art-world pedigree.

In a long gallery at the San Diego Museum of Art, freshly painted in off-white and balmy sky blue for its next exhibition, only a few works have been hung, while several dozen sit vertically on padded carts. By the looks of the multiple tags on their backsides--some typed, some hand-printed, some engraved on tarnished metal plates--they are a well-traveled, well-heeled lot.

And so they should be. This is a rare assemblage of paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and 19 American artists prominent in the early 20th century, including George Bellows, Isabel Bishop, William Glackens, Robert Henri and Leon Kroll.

At first glance, the activity-filled lawn tennis party of Bellow's "Tennis at Newport" or the cool urbanity of two shop girls leaning on a counter and chatting in Bishop's "At the Noon Hour" seem a world away from the calm domesticity of Renoir's bourgeois scenes.

But there is a point in bringing these works together: They illustrate the idea that the French painter Renoir was highly influential on critics, collectors and indeed the artists of America in the first half of the 20th century.

The show is "Idol of the Moderns: Pierre-Auguste Renoir and American Painting," which opened Saturday at the San Diego Museum of Art. It is co-curated by Anne Dawson, associate professor of art history at Eastern Connecticut State University, and Steven Kern, curator of European art at the San Diego museum.

Renoir was critically and popularly admired for both style and subject matter, says Dawson, speaking by phone from Connecticut. In an overarching way, "he was seen as someone who was the connection between the traditional and Impressionism, and also Postimpressionism. He was seen as someone who kept trying to experiment and to innovate."

That notion conflicts with today's vision of Renoir as the apotheosis of conservative 19th century tastes, with his sentimental depictions of plump, rosy-cheeked women and children.

"I think he had a big impact on the development of Modernism," Dawson says. "He was used by a lot of American critics to push artists beyond Impressionism to more Modernist styles."

The seed for the San Diego exhibition was Dawson's doctoral dissertation at Brown University, which analyzed criticism of Renoir's work in periodicals of the time such as the New York Evening Post, New York Sun and American Art News. Then, she says, "I wanted to expand my research into his influence on American artists."

In 1996 she met Kern, who was curating a show at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., about the Renoirs collected by the Clarks. A year later, after Kern had moved to the San Diego Museum of Art, he welcomed her proposal for a show that would encompass Renoir's impact on three groups: critics, collectors and artists.

Dawson emphasizes that the influences tracked by "Idol of the Moderns" are not based primarily on scholarly conjecture or visual interpretations. It was the artists and critics who pointed to Renoir as source and inspiration, in interviews, articles, letters and books.

In the late 1800s, Americans were already aware of French Impressionism, and the artist most identified with the movement was Monet. Then, at the turn of the century, tastes shifted. By 1914, American artist Guy Pene du Bois would declare, "Of the Impressionists, the most admired man in modern circles today is Renoir."

"It had to do with a change in American aesthetics, what people wanted to see in art, led by the critics," Dawson says. "One important thing was that Renoir was modern but accessible, and his works were sensual and happy."

His late works were his most popular here. They are filled with radiant people in idealized pastoral or domestic settings--for instance, "Young Shepherd in Repose" (1911) or "Mother and Child" (1910), both in the San Diego show. Women were favored subjects, clothed and unclothed, and the critics and collectors drawn to them were predominantly men, as Dawson's examples make clear. Dawson writes in the exhibition catalog that two influential American critics, James Gibbons Huneker and Willard Huntington Wright, "especially admired Renoir's representations of women enjoying traditionally acceptable and passive female activities."

Renoir's palette and brushwork in these paintings were another part of their appeal. "He started out in a more academic style," Dawson says, "then he was into Impressionism. In the 1890s he switched to a paint application that was looser, more free, and his colors became hotter, more intense. The three-dimensionality also became more pronounced."

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