January 6, 2013
For Albert Barnes, the French impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir was a magnificent obsession on a scale that defies both reason and understanding.
Between 1912, when he acquired his first nine Renoirs, and 1942, when he bought his last two, the founder of the Barnes Foundation gathered under his roof 178 Renoir oils of various sizes and subjects (as well as a pastel drawing, a lithograph, and a sculpture). Perhaps the best explanation of this amazing prodigality comes from the collector himself, as quoted on page 33 of the foundation's new comprehensive catalog of its Renoirs:
"I have never experienced from Renoir's work the ennui or disgust with the platitudinous emptiness and general damn rot that I have found in the work of practically every other man represented in my collection from Delacroix to Picasso.
"Renoir has been to me the most all-satisfying of any man's work I know. . . . Perhaps the thing that most interests me in Renoir, that most strikes a personal response is, what seems to me, his joy in painting the real life of red-blooded people, and his skill in conveying his sensations to my consciousness."
Barnes wrote this encomium to fellow collector Leo Stein in Paris in 1914, just two years after he began buying Renoirs. By the end of that year, he owned 35; two years later he had 60, and by the end of 1921, 96.
The year-by-year record of Barnes' quest is just one of the constituents of Renoir in the Barnes Collection by Martha Lucy, a former curator at the foundation, and the late John House, a leading Renoir scholar and emeritus professor at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London who died in February.
Besides providing the kind of in-depth documentation for every Renoir at the Barnes that one expects in a catalog of this kind, the book also examines the artist's credentials as a modernist, which Barnes believed him to be.
Describing as "modern" a painter of voluptuous nudes disposed in Arcadian settings might sound incongruous, but as the book reminds us, Renoir addressed many other themes, from landscapes and still lifes to portraits of children and women wearing hats.
Like his fellow impressionists, he was perhaps most "modern" when describing the life of his time - in paintings such as Mussel-Fishers at Berneval of 1879, one of the last two Renoirs that Barnes bought.
Interpreted broadly, the term modern is always relative to its period. Considered within the narrower parameters of art-historical terminology, most of Renoir's work seems today more retrograde than innovative, both technically and conceptually.
For Barnes, Renoir was a paragon because he represented what Lucy described as a "continuity of tradition."
"He loved artists who were interested in whole, solid forms," Lucy said. "Understanding his love of Renoir's physicality helps to explain why he didn't like Cubism, which he found too cerebral, too intellectual.
"Barnes wanted to show that modern art is not a rejection of tradition" as represented by such masters as Titian and Rubens, Lucy said. "Renoir helped him make a pedagogical point."
In the book, Lucy said, "Part of what I try to do is overturn the idea that Renoir doesn't fit into the collection. Renoir was a modernist for his time and for artists who came after him."
The book began about seven years ago as part of a broad project to assess the foundation's assets in depth. Lucy, who now teaches art history at Drexel University, said she and House were engaged for the Renoir section because the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the project's principal funder, liked to pair senior scholars (House) with more junior ones (Lucy).
After several years of research that involved sifting though records at the foundation and abroad, it became clear the Renoir collection deserved a book of its own, Lucy said. The result contains one essay by House and two by Lucy. The authors contribute extended commentaries on 64 of what they consider major paintings; the others are documented in seven thematic sections.
Also included are detailed provenances for each work and the results of technical examinations carried out by a team of conservators.
One of Lucy's essays concerns the 720 paintings found in Renoir's studio after he died. They were inherited by the artist's three sons and sold to dealers. Barnes bought 41, many of them the small, often sketchy pictures now distributed throughout the foundation's wall ensembles.
Lucy reports that these small oils were painted on larger canvases, with blank separations between scenes; they were cut out and framed individually for sale by the dealers.
It's unclear to scholars what Renoir's intentions were for these small pictures. He may have made them as studies, as notations for ideas to be developed later, or simply to create a larger legacy for his sons.
Barnes, who favored the artist's late work, bought a lot of them. Because they are distributed all over the foundation galleries, the magnitude of Renoir's presence at the Barnes tends to be disguised.
The book more fully reveals the scope of Barnes' passion for the artist. Lucy said she and House wanted their lavishly illustrated text to be accessible to a general audience "but also to be a real contribution to Renoir scholarship." In that they have succeeded.
Whoever designed the book could have helped by forgoing the use of red type for picture captions - it's practically illegible - and by using larger page numbers and placing them where they could be seen easily.
Art: Renoir in the Barnes Foundation
By Martha Lucy and John House.
Published by Yale University Press in association with the Barnes Foundation. 382 pages, 555 color illustrations. $75.
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