Arts & Culture

Kimbell exhibit focuses on the defining subject of Renoir’s career, the human figure

The Kimbell may be on a roll with another blockbuster show. This summer, a Monet exhibit brought the museum its largest crowds in two decades. Marking the hundred-year anniversary of his death, the Kimbell’s first major survey of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s work focuses on the defining subject of his career, the human figure. Nudes, in particular.

On view through January 26 at Kimbell Art Museum, Renoir: The Body, The Senses captures the fifty-year evolution of the French painter who led the development of the Impressionist style known for capturing figures in landscapes with vibrant colors. With over sixty works from Renoir, the artists who inspired him as a student, and the artists he influenced, this show also captures the painter’s place in his time.

The concentration of this juxtaposition is particularly high in the exhibit’s first gallery, which highlights the artist’s influences. Four early works from Renoir, including his self-portrait from 1876, are shown alongside paintings from an older generation of artists including François Bouchet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and Eugène Delacroix. Growing up near the Louvre, these paintings from old masters are representative of the works Renoir regularly viewed as a boy.

“Renoir was trying to map out the human body as a young artist,” said Esther Bell, Chief Curator of the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts, who co-organized this exhibit with George Shackelford, deputy director of Kimbell.

From 1870, “Bather with a Griffon Dog” is one of Renoir’s first major nudes. “One critic said the model was in need of a bath,” said Bell. “There was an uneasiness with this realistic depiction of the female body.”

In the next gallery, five years have passed and Renoir’s work is shown alongside paintings from his Impressionist peers, Edgar Degas and Paul Cézanne, revealing an artistic dialogue. This section includes works that are not nudes, including one of the highlights of the exhibit, Renoir’s “Sleeping Girl.”

“The senses are represented in this painting,” Shackelford said, referencing the show’s title. “You have the sense of hearing, because the cat is undoubtedly purring, and the sense of touch between girl and cat.”

Another stunner on loan for this exhibit is 1742’s “Diana Leaving Her Bath.” The first Boucher painting purchased by the Louvre in 1852, it had an enormous influence on Renoir and informed the way he rendered the body of a woman throughout his career. Unfortunately, “The Great Bathers,” the masterpiece Renoir spent three years creating, is not included here. But a red and white chalk study for the painting helps fill the void.

From 1881, “Blonde Bather” is a portrait of Renoir’s future wife, Aline Charigot. It marks a shift in style influenced by the classical period from Italian masters that continues with 1897’s “Bathers Playing with a Crab.”

“Renoir starts showing an interest in line and silhouette that is very much indebted to Italian fresco paintings,” said Bell.

By the twentieth century, Renoir was part of the continuum of great French art first represented by the Golden Age of the seventeenth century. His influence on modernism is highlighted here with Picasso’s 1906 painting, “Nude Combing Her Hair.” Struggling with arthritis late in his life, Renoir also started collaborating with younger artists to create his first sculptures.

“It’s amazing to think of Renoir sculpting from a wheelchair by communicating ideas verbally,” Shackelford said.

Making his paintings three-dimensional, bronze sculptures like “Venus Victorious” from 1914 are remarkable figures that show the strength of Renoir’s vision.

But Renoir still had some of his greatest achievements as a painter ahead of him. Completed in his final year, “The Bathers” is one of his best works. It is also one of Renoir’s most experimental paintings because he is more concerned with colors shifts than making his figures anatomically correct.

“Renoir became interested in a boneless form, a body that is taking up the entire picture plane,” Bell said. “It’s as if these women are going to pop out of the frame.”

Completed after Renoir’s death in 1919, works by Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, and Fernand Léger are included in the last gallery to demonstrate his enduring influence. A photograph of Picasso in his studio with a Renoir painting for inspiration is also included in the show. The exhibit even includes Renoir’s painting of a seated bather, which was purchased by Picasso in 1920.

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