"Two Girls Reading," circa 1890-91, is another of Renoir's… (LACMA )
Severely crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, 71-year-old painter Pierre- Auguste Renoir agreed in 1912 to one last attempt at walking. But when the doctor lifted him from his wheelchair, Renoir managed to go just a few steps before he told the doctor that to walk would take "all my willpower, and I would have none left for painting. If I have to choose between walking and painting, I'd much rather paint."
Renoir never did walk again, filmmaker Jean Renoir recalled in his book, "Renoir, My Father," but he did paint successfully for many more years. He would be brought into his studio and seated in front of a canvas, where a paintbrush would be placed into his fist, a piece of cloth protecting his immobilized fingers from the brush's wooden handle. "The Bathers," his last monumental work, was completed in 1919, the year he died.
Matisse called "The Bathers" Renoir's masterpiece, and Los Angeles museum goers can make their own decisions when an exhibition of that painting and dozens more opens at LACMA on Sunday. Organized with Paris' Musée d'Orsay and Réunion des Musées Nationaux, in collaboration with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the show looks not at the better-known Impressionist works that made Renoir famous but rather at the very different work he produced over his last 30 years.
Like Shakespeare and Beethoven, Cezanne and Picasso, Renoir made the most of his later years. "If you study great artists like Degas, Rembrandt, Goya and Matisse who had long careers, the work looks different as they get older," says Selma Holo, director of the USC Fisher Museum of Art. "They sense the finiteness of life."
But unlike that of the others, Renoir's late work has received less attention in recent years. Highly thought of by collectors, artists and the general public at the time it was created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the work had fallen out of favor by the end of the century.
In the process of coming together for several years, the exhibition is the first to focus on Renoir's late work, combining it with examples from Matisse, Picasso, Bonnard and Maillol to suggest Renoir's influence. Its recently concluded Paris showing drew crowds of nearly 430,000 in three months.
"I think people there were surprised by some of the paintings," says J. Patrice Marandel, LACMA's chief curator of European art, who originated the exhibition. "You have to look at these as if they were by a new painter named Renoir, not the Renoir you think you know."
Shift in imagery
Born in Limoges and raised in Paris, Renoir was the son of a tailor and painted on porcelain and café walls before receiving formal training as an artist. Best known as one of the founders of Impressionism, he participated in key Impressionist exhibitions of the 1870s and produced such well-known paintings as "Luncheon of the Boating Party" and "Ball at the Moulin de la Galette."
But in the 1880s, Renoir's concerns began to change. "He was not so comfortable with Impressionism any more," observes Claudia Einecke, LACMA associate curator of European painting and sculpture. "He felt there should be something more. He didn't want only to record what the eye sees. He also wanted the painting to be about something else -- the history of art and classic, traditional themes. He was interested in artists of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, including Titian and Rubens, his special favorites, but he didn't want to copy them. He wanted to carry on that tradition by creating a new art that combined the spirit of that tradition with painting that responded to modern life."
Consider his paintings of female nudes, Einecke says on an early walk-through of the exhibition. "Reminiscent of Rubens, the body is fuller and more rounded, and it isn't that his models looked like that. He distorted the body to make works of art that expressed his more traditional way of seeing the female as the personification and representation of fecundity. He wanted them to express timeless qualities of femininity."
To help put Renoir's nudes in context, paintings of fleshy Renoir women nestle near a female torso by the French sculptor Aristide Maillol, much as a series of clothed Renoir women at home is juxtaposed with Picasso's later "Woman With a White Hat." Similarly, the curators have placed together two of Renoir's paintings of odalisques ["The Concert" and "Woman With a Mandolin"] with a later Matisse odalisque, "Two Models Resting," which share similarities in their figures and background.
The exhibition catalog is replete with remarks by younger artists like Bonnard about Renoir's influence, complemented by photographs of Renoir artworks in the working studios of Picasso and others. "Matisse tried to have lunch with him once a week, and Picasso regretted that he didn't see more of him," observes Joseph Rishel, senior curator of European painting before 1900 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "Bonnard visited, and Maillol is like late Renoir gone into 3-D."