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Yesterday’s Today: Renoir’s Timelessness

“Luncheon of the Boating Party” taken at the Phillips Collection

In the sea of middle-aged art enthusiasts at the Phillips Collection, my ripped jeans and Nikes stood out glaringly. And yet, I felt at home. A visit to the Collection’s newest exhibition, “Renoir and Friends: Luncheon of the Boating Party”, may not be every teenager’s cup of tea, but the mere variety of viewers’ paraphernalia I could see – ranging from reading glasses and canes to Jansport backpacks and notebooks – spoke to the wide spectrum of people still moved by Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s paintings. More than a century after their creation, Renoir’s impressionist masterpieces continue to strike a chord with viewers of all ages and interests; one does not need an art history background to be allured by the ethereal colors, softness, and character of impressionist art. So why exactly are we so entranced?

Impressionism flourished in France during the late 19th century, shocking crowds with its unconventional technique and subjects. With Edouard Manet’s portrait of the nonchalant and nude “Olympia” (1863), Claude Monet’s plein air landscapes that moved the art of painting outdoors, and the transition from precise, calculated strokes to quick, unblended marks, this new style had the French astonished and undeniably fascinated. Fixated on capturing light, the fleeting moment, and French society, impressionism was and still is a style of paradoxes as it adheres to some artistic conventions while rebelling in their chosen subjects and technique. In impressionist art, what seems at first like a traditional painting is, in truth, a rather abstract representation – a focus not on meticulous detail but rather on the mood of the moment. Despite the roughness of their strokes, there is a certain softness to impressionist paintings. Perhaps this juxtaposition is what continues to captivate us.

The paintings of “Renoir and Friends”, particularly his renowned “Luncheon of the Boating Party” have an eerie sense of modernity to them, a relevance that still holds over a century after. Renoir captures an intimate gathering at a party, distinguishing individuals such as his wife and frequent model Aline Charigot and friend Gustave Caillebotte, in a setting similar to today’s social gatherings. Captured in the figures’ authentic facial expressions and body language is a tangible tenderness that is seldom seen in paintings of earlier times. The magic of impressionism is the realism of a moment that it reproduces, perhaps even enhances, and permeates into audiences of new centuries. Renoir’s “Young Woman Sewing” (1879) is a deviation from his lively, jubilant atmosphere of “The Luncheon of the Boating Party.” He captures a poignancy through blue and purple hues, and his feathery strokes almost seem to blend the sewing woman with the background, while the sharpness of detail in the flowers breaks the foreground. It is not Renoir’s technique, although beautiful, that pulls us into his works but rather his effortless ability to make us feel.

It may seem strange to us to call impressionist technique and subjects innovative and even rebellious for the time, only because such unconventionality has been normalized in our day. Yet Renoir, among other impressionists, was a maverick of the arts that in fact paved the way for the modernity we see today. Renoir’s indelible mark continues to evolve and breathe as exhibitions are continuously filled by endless crowds. “Renoir and Friends” was particularly refreshing as it expanded upon his contemporary legacy through modern technology; the exhibit displayed the study of three painting conservators and scientists who inspected the surface of Renoir’s paintings, examining their x-radiographic and infrared images, to reveal a new depth of understanding. Modern technology has revealed glimpses of Renoir’s thought processes that have been crystallized in every stroke, such as his decision in “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” to cover Aline Charigot’s originally red dress with the blue we see today. The underlying red paint is supposedly still visible through the cracks in her blue dress.

Through such efforts to prolong art’s beauty with research and technology, we continue to rejuvenate the past. The creativity and fearlessness of the arts that followed impressionism, whether it be Picasso’s cubist interpretation of human form or Dali’s melting clocks, pay homage to the impressionists’ rejection of conformity. Exhibitions may end and art will evolve, but Renoir’s legacy is infinite.

PC: Wikimedia Commons

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