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March 13, 2007

Christie Davies thanks the sponsors Ernst & Young for enabling him to explore the full richness of Renoir's landscape painting: Renoir Landscapes 1865-1883 at the National Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

Renoir Landscapes 1865-1883
National Gallery, London
21st February - 20th May 2007
Daily 10am - 6pm (Wednesdays until 9pm)

The exhibition of Renoir landscapes at the National Gallery is a welcome reminder of a sometimes neglected, and, if so very unfairly neglected, aspect of Renoir's work. Renoir has come to be seen as a figure painter, as the man who specialised in les grandes fesses des grandes baigneuses.

In the art market, if you took away his well curved bathers, the bottom would drop out of Renoir. Renoir himself might have agreed. He said that he only knew when one of his female nudes was finished and ready when he was tempted to pinch its bottom, an obsession for which he was mocked by Modigliani. For Renoir l'arrière pensée, c'est derrière pincée. You can't grasp a tree or a rock or a path in the same way and who has ever succeeded in pinching the wave on a river?

But you can, nonetheless, feel things which are not tactile and Renoir was a master of the feel of a landscape. In some of his best work the people are absent or unimportant. There are no figures in his Mediterranean Landscape, 1883 that pulls you along a fading path struggling through shrubs and grass into a dark hole in the woods. Above, a many branched dead tree, strangled by triumphant ivy, grasps at you. Apart from some tiny holes of blue sky, it is just massed browns and yellows and most of all, the very varied greens of nature. It is so enticing that you want to be there in the heat, listening to the buzz of the insects, both of which must have bothered the artist.

The Mediterranean light is even stronger and the vegetation as overwhelming in Le Jardin d'Essai Algiers, 1881, that lush tropical garden, a tribute to the achievements of France's mission civilatrice. You, the viewer, stand on a hot white path, one broken by the shade and shadows of the palm fronds, watching the path recede and the palms close in, till they almost meet in the distance. Renoir loved this trick of using a path to pull you in from the seemingly open space where you stand into the closed heart of the picture.

Where there are people, they are almost absorbed by the plants, as in Springtime at Chatou, 1875, Woman with a Parasol in a Garden, 1875-6 or Garden in the rue Cortot, 1876.

The gardens are exuberant and overgrown, the massed colours of the flowers have taken over. The woman with a parasol has no face. Her black figure is so like the bushes to her left, that only the circle of the yellow parasol, like a bright halo tells you she is there at all. The flowers rule. Likewise, in Garden in the rue Cortot the faceless men, half-seen in their quietly coloured coats, wedged in the young tress, are but a background offset to the big, dominant, red, white, pink, orange dahlias that hold the centre. There is no point in standing close to these Renoir's to get another picture, as you would with say a Constable landscape. There is an optimal point from which to look at them. With Constable you can walk towards his landscapes and then away again and they always look both right and different. With Renoir there is one best distance but, when you have found it, you know perfection.

Even when there are central figures, they are pulled into the foliage as in Le Promenade, 1870 or Woman with a Parasol and a small Child on a Sunlit hillside, 1874. Nature is master. In La promenade, a young man in a straw boater helps a woman along an upward sloping woodland path and in doing so he backs into the trees and bushes at the side and becomes a "green man". He gestures forwards into the trees; she looks away to the side, as if wondering whether she really wants to surrender to their and his green embrace and to be tumbled and tupped in the woods.

In Woman with a Parasol and a Small Child in a sunlit Hillside it is the child who is about to get lost, a busy little person confidently brushing through the high sunlit grass towards a black wood. The mother lies sideways, all black hair and eyes under her pink parasol, so busy posing, self-consciously beautiful for Renoir, that she has forgotten the little blonde child wandering off. Renoir has fitted her into the flowing gold and green grass by making her white dress flow with it, now with a hint of black like her hair, now with a touch of the pink of her parasol, so that they become one. Woman is nature. Renoir is culture, the detached, rational artificer who records that fact. How very French. How very true. Art is a male artist looking at a female model displaying, culture looking at nature, subject at object.

Not just Renoir's garden in Montmartre and Monet's in Argenteuil, shown in Claude Monet painting in his garden at Argenteuil, 1893, but even hideous fashionable Paris, depressing urban Paris is, for Renoir, gripped by nature. Renoir's Les Grands Boulevards, 1875, is rich in people and colour - the red jacket of the coachman whose white horse will just miss trampling a dark-robed nun in a white winged hijab, girls with pink ribbons against the white street, men in shiny top hats gesticulating as they talk. To the side close to us a man sits reading a newspaper, looking uncannily like Cézanne's father. Perhaps all such readers, struggling with the small print of the financial papers, curl up in that way. But the setting of it all is the leaves of the trees that line the boulevard and pull us into the distance, embracing and hiding the buildings, a green softness obliterating the then new, harsh, high modernity of Paris. One day when global warming brings the jungle to the Seine and the ruins of Paris poke through like the ancient centres of the Maya or the Khmer, Renoir will be seen as a prophet.

The exhibition is designed to make it clear that, throughout his career, Renoir was open to the influence of others. When he painted La Grenouillère, 1869, a bathing place on the Ile de Croissy, twenty minutes from Paris by train, he, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, was painting alongside Claude-Oscar Monet, who also produced his versions of the scene, La Grenouillere, 1869, and the curators have hung the two together. Here are two portrayals of the Parisians making their way precariously across wet and greasy planks to the tiny island, no more than five yards across, known from its smell as Le Camembert. Here the two artists achieved a mastery of water, the ideal subject for impressionists, never still, always shimmering, a shifting pattern of light and shade, whose motion has to be captured in, of necessity, static paint. It was these skills that gave us from Renoir, first the flow of The Seine at Chatou, 1871, and then the lightness of Rowers at Argenteuil, 1873-4 where the trees and the grass dance like the water as they do again in The Skiff (La Yole), 1875.

By the later Renoir landscape, Woman at the Seaside, Seascape, 1879-80, grassy cliff and sea beyond are as one. As you look across the cliff-top grass out to sea, you could be looking at a landscape, with the green mounds of waves as hills and the odd tiny sail as a roof. It is one single fluid pattern of flowing, mottled blue and green.

Here is the soft, British, Manchiste, Normandy light of a northern land that once was ours, of a sea that still is, in contrast to the exotic brightness of the Algeria and Italy that Renoir visited in 1881. In Italy he chose to paint familiar, almost hackneyed, scenes, possibly because they would sell or perhaps because he knew them from the work of his friend Whistler or even that of Turner. Yet he is still very much Renoir the master. Everyone knows the view of the Piazza San Marco, Venice, 1881, but only Renoir has shown it as if we were racing down it at speed to hurtle through the open door of the bright coloured Doge's palace, that mass of inset semi-circles, flattening dark blue pigeons on the way. Renoir has introduced a new sense of movement as well as new colours to the piazza.

On his way home from Italy, Renoir made a point of visiting Cézanne, whose recent work he had already seen in Paris and which had excited him. He painted alongside and was influenced by Cezanne and so we get Rocky Crags at L'Estaque, 1882, his version of Cezanne's tumbling chunks of rock in Provence. The vivid wild colours of Italy are gone and there is a greater sense of sheer shape but he is still Renoir, not the geometry of Cezanne, just as he had never been Monet or Turner or Whistler.

Whether Renoir was an innovator in landscape painting as the curators claim, I do not know, nor can I see that it is important. Nor is there much point in asking whether or not Renoir influenced the art of the twentieth century, as Cezanne certainly did. What we have here is a display not so much of innovation but of remarkable adaptability and variety. It is worth going to the exhibition to realise that the one and the same Renoir could paint The Harvesters, 1873, The Wave, 1879, Seascape, 1879, and The Bay of Naples (Morning), 1881 and to explore the full richness of his mastery of landscape painting. Thank you Ernst and Young for bringing us Renoir as you did Bonnard, Cézanne, Monet and Picasso. Where would we be without global capitalism?

Professor Christie Davies is a contributor to Decadence: The Passing of Personal Virtue and Its Replacement by Political and Psychological Slogans (ed. Digby Anderson, Social Affairs Unit, 2005) where his chapter shows how environmental ethics must be rooted in an aesthetic concern for landscape.

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