THERE is a certain element of brutality in Monet, as in some other impressionists, to which however Auguste Renoir (1841) presents the extreme of contrast. His art is of exquisite refinement, at once virile and voluptuous ; replete with gaiety, grace and tenderness; supple as well as strong; magisterial, yet caressing; an art that in its latest phase bathes all it touches in a miracle of luminous color and yet asserts the beauty of form. Renoir is of all modern French artists the most typical of the permanent spirit of the race. He has resumed the thread that was snapped by the Revolution; carrying forward the art of Fragonard and thus uniting with the stream of inspiration which the eighteenth century derived from Rubens.
But equally he represents the new influence of the nineteenth century. His earlier work reflects the example of Courbet, Manet and Velasquez. It is his black, white and gray period which culminated in the magnificent pictorial treatment of La Loge (p. 180). In this there is no mistaking the influences that have operated; yet the manner as well as the feeling are original, purely French, and unequivocally Renoir. Fine as it is, however, it proved to be only the completion of a step in the artist’s development, which was now to embrace the color-technique of impressionism and the influence of Ingres. It was such examples of Ingres as the Odalisque and Le Bain Turc, the latter representing a number of nudes reclining in various attitudes of luxurious contentment around a marble bathing pool, that helped Renoir to consummate his art. They awoke in him the Frenchman’s characteristic love of form and style; qualities in which the general run of modern impressionistic pictures are singularly deficient.
Renoir’s decorative treatment under the new inspiration became more completely organic. Whereas in La Loge the arabesque is, as it were woven, now, particularly in his nudes, he models it. He has lost nothing of the exquisite manipulation of material, producing such beautiful mystery of surfaces ; but he now extends the beauty of the surface back into the planes of his picture; making the forms mysteriously issue from the mystery of colored luminosity that fills the concaves of his spaces. Ingres has taught him, as he did Degas, to discover the grand line and the grandeur of mass ; but, while Degas makes both count for character as well as beauty, Renoir’s addition to the beauty is the palpitating splendor and warm life of movement. No other Frenchman has interpreted so unerringly a certain French type of child and young woman, velvety, plump and luscious as a peach in sunshine. Gesture, expression, texture, are characteristic. There is character in Fragonard, but it is rather that of convention ; with Renoir it is character of nature.
If one compares Fragonard’s Women Bathing of the Louvre with similar subjects by Renoir it is to realize how far naturalism, filtered through the latter’s temperament; has improved upon the Rococo. Renoir has discovered rhythms in the forms and gestures of his bathers that are nature’s, caught and blended by art, in comparison with which Fragonard’s women seem to be consciously posturing. The advance is yet more noticeable when the figures are viewed in relation to the water, sky and foliage. It is not only that again the natural beauty of the ingredients exceeds that of the studio convention; but that Renoir, by his subtler use of color and ability to evoke the luminosity of nature, welds all the parts of his decoration into a harmony of relation which envelops the surface and also impregnates all the receding planes. Renoir’s decoration is more plastic, while at the same time the substance out of which it is constructed is infinitely more subtle and evasive.
In his search for the plastic Renoir will sometimes treat part of his figures, especially the hands, in a way that offends, alike, the naturalist and the academician. It is here that he asserts the claim of the Impressionist to subordinate, slur or even misrepresent a part if by so doing he can better achieve his impression of the whole. Meanwhile, though he has explored the possibilities of impressionism farther than any other artist of his age, his art has been at the same time more thoroughly representative of the great traditions of painting. This has been his final distinction, and on it will probably be based his reputation with posterity.