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At MFA, dancing the night away in the arms of Renoir

Renoir paintings (from left) “Dance at Bougival,” “Dance in the Country,’’ and “Dance in the City.’’ ­ Museum of Fine Arts, boston

‘Dance at Bougival” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir is one of the best-loved works of art in Boston. Six feet tall and a couple of feet wide, it shows a man and woman, full-length and casually attired, dancing in an outdoor cafe on the outskirts of Paris. Cigarette butts are scattered on the ground at their feet.

The painting, one of Renoir’s most famous, hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts, where it sends out palpable vibrations of pleasure, creating its own mini-climate of amorousness.

It’s a mood that, from today until early September, will be created in triplicate, thanks to a loan of two related Renoir paintings from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Both pictures were painted in the same year, 1883, as “Dance at Bougival,” and both are full-length portrayals of dancing couples.


One is called “Dance in the Country,” the other is “Dance in the City.” They were conceived by Renoir as a pair, and together with “Dance at Bougival” they – well, they’ll likely make you want to dance. With someone you like. A lot. Slowly.

The Musée d’Orsay recently sent its two Renoirs to New York for a larger show at the Frick Collection – “Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting” – to which “Dance at Bougival” was also sent. That show, which closed last Sunday, broke attendance records for the months of February and March at the Frick.

Before bringing them home, the Musée d’Orsay, a museum with which the MFA has been forging close relations in recent years, agreed to send its two full-length Renoirs to Boston.

The mini-exhibit is the second in what the MFA has billed its “Visiting Masterpiece” series. The inaugural show in the series was in 2010: The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam lent Vincent van Gogh’s “The Sower” to the Boston museum, where it was paired with the MFA-owned painting by Jean-François Millet that inspired it. Other works by van Gogh in the MFA’s collection fleshed out the display.


The two visiting Renoirs set the basic theme of a man and a woman dancing in contrasting settings. The first, a formal dance in an urban ballroom, is all stately restraint and elegant glamour. The second, set in the country, has an earthier, more vigorous atmosphere.

All the models in the Musée d’Orsay pictures have been successfully identified. In both pictures the man is Renoir’s friend, Paul Auguste Lhote. The woman dancing in his arms in the city is the artist’s model and painter Suzanne Valadon, while the woman dancing in the country is Aline Charigot, who was Renoir’s lover, and later his wife.

It’s not so clear who the models in the MFA picture are, but Ronni Baer, senior curator of European paintings, believes the woman may be an amalgam of Valadon and Charigot.

Two other Renoirs from the MFA’s collection of over 40 by the artist, including 13 paintings, will round out the display. One of them, “Boating Couple,” a pastel, also features Charigot – this time in the company of a man who appears to be Renoir himself. The other, “The Seine at Chatou,” is a beautiful landscape showing a slice of the Seine across the river from Bougival.

Together, the works do just what you suspect Renoir wanted them to do: They charm your pants off.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at