Williamstown — “Why shouldn’t art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world,” said Pierre-Auguste Renoir once, famously, to his enduring detriment. Perched on the edge of Modernism as art teetered and eventually tumbled into an abyss of angst and pain, sturm und drang, Renoir must have seemed blithely bull-headed in his willful abstention. Whatever else his work might be, most of it is unrelentingly pretty. While his peers dissected social upheaval with every stroke — Edouard Manet, with his heroic pictures of the proletariat; the terrible beauty of industrial progress that so entranced Claude Monet — Renoir saw only pleasure. It is, in the modern context of things, a stress test: How much joy can anyone take?
The Clark Art Institute means to find out. On June 8, it opens “Renoir: The Body, The Senses,” a deep dive into the master Impressionist’s favorite subject, the nude (we could say “female” with 90 percent-plus accuracy; of the 70 works here, I counted only two or three men). It affirms what we already know: Renoir was a deep and unapologetic sensualist, exulting in the pleasures of color and light, flesh and form. You’ll stop in front of “Study. Torso of a Woman in the Sunlight,” from 1875-76, because how can you not? It’s unabashed, volumes of sun-dappled flesh wreathed in ravishing greens and blues. It has little to tell, and everything to show. Even so, “The Body, the Senses” has some new lessons to teach, about the gap between the merely pretty and the truly beautiful.
That’s getting a little ahead of ourselves, though. It’s true, I think, that Renoir sits down a rung on the Impressionist ladder from such woke artists as Manet, Monet, and Edgar Degas. Art, like human beings, responds to change with reasonable doubt: first resistance, then criticism. As late-19th-century industrialization clenched the world in its steel jaws, it churned out transformative change with mechanical efficiency. Mass urbanization and the class division that came with it rapidly became facts of life, making social critique as much a hallmark of early Modernism as a loosening of style, a broadening of technique. (Degas, with his keen observations of class and the grim reality of many in overcrowded Paris, saw this with clear-eyed ruthlessness.)
Renoir embraced the former while eliding the latter, his canvases soft with pleasure, colored in bliss. If there’s a drop of social angst in any of them, I can’t see it. In 1882, just as he was starting to gain traction commercially, he refused to show with Camille Pissarro, a self-described anarchist and provocateur.
It’s not that Renoir was too precious, or an haute-bourgeois disinclined toward political agitation. He was born in 1841 in Limoges to parents who were solidly working-class: his father a tailor, his mother a dressmaker. When he was 4, his family moved to a small apartment in the shadow of the Louvre, where he became entranced by the sleek marble bodies of the museum’s classical sculpture galleries. As a teen, he worked in a porcelain factory, painting mass-produced cups and saucers for the growing middle class. It gave him a firsthand look at the march of progress, and how it would transform human beings into units of labor in a burgeoning industrial economy. Might he have decided there that world was not for him, and to not acknowledge it would, at least in his own world, make it go away?
At 20, he joined the studio of Charles Gleyre, the Swiss painter who would also give formative training to a young Monet and Georges Bazille. Gleyre stressed accuracy, with exercises meant to cultivate dead-straight realism in his students. Human anatomy was key, a priority to which Renoir, with his obsession with classical sculpture, was perfectly suited.
Gleyre demanded his students learn to draw the body in perfect detail before he would allow them to paint, and Renoir was a quick study. Two of his early paintings here show a budding figurative classicist, if not the ravishing colorist he would become: “Boy With a Cat,” his subject’s sallow gray flesh perfect and precise, as though carved from alabaster, and “Bather With a Griffon Dog — Lise on the Banks of the Seine,” from 1870, a classical Venus come to life. The unnerving precision of her body is at odds with the loose, almost muddily painted tangle of fabric she’s holding, and seems to reveal both his training and his priorities: Time, place, and thing matter little, and the figure all.
“The Body, The Senses,” does some heavy work to situate Renoir among his peers and in art history, both before and after. Renoir begs for compare and contrast, and the show delivers: His sunny seaside rapture “Bathers Playing With a Crab” (1897) hangs next to Degas’s “The Bathers” (1895-1900), a bleak, colorless scene that looks as much like broken bodies dumped from a truck as a day at the beach. Renoir’s “Bathers” have another companion, Paul Cezanne’s “Three Bathers,” a jaggedly painted scene of icy-cold restraint. It’s a show-stealer — sharp jabs of green and blue, stilted bodies under a pale sky — that sends a chill up your spine.
It makes its point: Among his peers, Renoir was an irrepressible ray of sunshine amid a pervasive dark and cold. This was a point of distinction, if not honor. Cezanne and Degas continued to reduce their techniques, whittling their work down to bare essentials, while Renoir pursued excess.
A midlife trip to Italy connected him to Rafael and his frescoes; then his work transformed. Against the shifting fashion of the day, Renoir had always loved the exuberant fleshiness of Peter-Paul Rubens and the mannered, precise, and decorative work of Francois Boucher. But Rafael, with smooth surfaces and classical forms, taught him something new.
In the grand finale of “The Body, The Senses,” Renoir undergoes a late-life shift. Gone are the hazy images, the loose brush strokes and thick paint of his life’s work. Renoir would no longer, in Impressionist dogma, paint what he saw; reengaged with history and classicism, he steered somewhere new. The shift led to works like “Seated Bather,” a naked woman loose-limbed and fleshy, improbably proportioned, slouching in soft-focus. “Bather Seated in a Landscape, called Eurydice” is almost the same picture, just a few years earlier: The rounded figure in the foreground is monumental, while her fully clothed companions linger in the distance.
There’s something radically gaudy about these images, excess pushed to an unsettling limit. They’re unnerving, and I’m not the only one who thinks it. In 1913, just as he was painting these pieces, the American painter Mary Cassatt wrote to a friend that Renoir was painting hideous pictures “of enormously fat red women with very small heads.” In Renoir’s overwhelmingly pretty oeuvre, the late works never sat well. They were acquired by museums because, well, they were Renoirs, but often with reservation (the Barnes Collection has more than anyone, its patron having been their biggest fan). In 1989, the Museum of Modern Art even sold Renoir’s 1902 “Reclining Nude” because “it simply didn’t belong to the story of modern art that we are telling,” said curator of paintings, Kirk Varnedoe, at the time.
“The Great Bathers,” Renoir’s final painting and his magnum opus of the time, sits at the very end of the show, almost as consummation of all that came before. It’s jarring, with its two bodies lolling in the foreground in a sickly colored stew of yellows and greens. It’s captivating, though hardly beautiful in any conventional sense, and the Musees Nationales de France agreed. When Renoir’s family tried to donate it after his death in 1919 as a gesture toward his legacy, the museums refused — a shocking rebuke, given the artist’s almost godlike status there. They eventually acquiesced, with their protest duly noted.
Linda Nochlin, the renowned critic, once called the painting “the paradigm of all I found wrong with the traditional representation of the nude.” Yes, but. Look more closely at all the late works, with their paint thinned down and the fibres of canvas showing through. They hang here alongside Picasso and Matisse, both of whom adored Renoir (Picasso owned Eurydice, enraptured by its simultaneous sense of liberty and tradition).
They revered if not the work, then the artist’s inexhaustible drive to reinvent, to learn, to create something new. Renoir worked to the end of his life in a reductive mode, if not of image, then of form, doing more and more with less and less. “The Great Bathers,” a gaudy and glorious mess, is a collision of technical marvels — the sky painted thin in barely-there strokes, a flower or a ribbon bursting off the surface here and there in thick, rough daubs.
It feels like everything Renoir had ever learned, and ever known, all in one picture. Like “The Body, The Senses,” it confirms, and reveals, the life’s work of an artist where subject was secondary, and painting was all.
RENOIR: THE BODY, THE SENSES
At the Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown, through Sept. 22. 413-458-2303, www.clarkart.edu