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  • Writer's pictureBrian Keeler

Renoir and Bouguereau – Process to Polish

Updated: Aug 22, 2019

An Essay by Brian Keeler

Reflecting on the Clark Institute Show “Renoir: The Body, The Senses”

Brian Keeler sketching from the large oil by William-Adolphe Bouguereau at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, MA. This oil of nymphs and a Satyr is one of the consummate examples of late 19th century academic realism with a nod to myths of classical Greek antiquity.

Almost all would know the name of Renoir, I suspect, from either the impressionist painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir or his son Jean Renoir, the director of films. But I also suspect, for the general reader, few know of Bouguereau. William-Adolphe Bouguereau is however one of the luminary artists of France in the late 19th century and an artist whom I have appreciated in museums of the world like the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum in NYC and many others including the Johnson Museum here in Ithaca or the Arnot Musuem in Elmira, NY. Both of those latter museums have splendid paintings by Bouguerau, of female figures with classicism as the underpinning credo.

It is the wonderful museum in northwestern Massachussetts, The Sterling and Francine Clark Institute that has inspired this reflection on the two French Painters. I’ve been making stops at the Clark for decades, whenever I am even close to the area I make it a point to drive to the Clark for a few hours of immersion in the great works there. The permanent collection is nothing short of spectacular with inspiring works by Turner, Lord Leighton, Gerome, Piero Della Francesca, George Inness, John Singer Sargent and many others. I recently visited the Clark Institute to view the current show, “Renoir: The Body, The Senses.”

A small pencil sketch done from Bouguereau's beautiful figure painting at the Clark Institute. Sketching from master works is a great way to study and slow down the often hurried pace that we assume in museums.

A self portrait by Renoir as an older man, part of the Clark Institute's permanent collection. In this painting, Renoir's technique does not display the brushy fractured stokes or dappled light we often associate with the impressionists.

Pierrre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was one of the most painterly of painters and it is because of his very brushy approach and look to his canvases that I have chosen to contrast him with the waxen finishes of the paintings of Bouguerau. The fact that this current show of the work of Renoir’s figurative and nude works is at the Clark is serendipitous as one of Bougueerau’s most iconic paintings is in a nearby gallery of the Clark. I am referring to his large-scale depiction of four nymphs pushing a satyr into a river, titled simply “Nymphs and Satyr.” This 1873 oil painting harkens back to an Acadian Ideal of an unspoiled harmonious wilderness in ancient Greece as many of his canvases do, like the equally large and breath taking painting of the birth of Venus in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. When I first saw this latter painting I was overwhelmed by its grandeur, beauty and virtuosic performance of artistic skill. I sketched it on the spot and while appreciating it with a graphite study, I realized that this painting must surely take honor over Botticelli’s more famous version of the Birth of Venus, which we’ve seen in books or perhaps as I have on numerous occasions in the Uffizi in Florence.

The show of Renoir and his circle at the Clark was not large, but of course there were many major figurative and nude works of Renoir not included, it was still very complete and satisfying nonetheless. The exhibit was contained in about three large rooms on the ground floor and it presents many supporting canvases. These related canvases are mostly of the nude and include paintings by Corot, Cézanne, Boucher, Matisse and others to bring us the context, firmament and influences. One of the intrigues of the exhibit was the room of Renoir’s drawings in red chalk, conte crayon and pastel. This circular room showed us these large drawings; they were in many cases of equal size to the canvases of the same themes that we’ve viewed in their oil painted version at museums like the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I am referring to the painting of three splashing beauties that is in the PMA. Mary Cassatt is quoted in a nearby wall plaque explaining her reverence for these preliminary drawings. She suggests that these thoroughly realized and intensely observed drawings show us that impressionism was not just a flighty response of a whim to the fleeting effects of light. Many of the impressionist’s canvases were however, in fact just that, quick and spontaneous records in paint of landscape, city or people. But these drawings show us that the impressionist aesthetic and fascination with nuances of hue, light and brushwork could be combined with more considered efforts and developed into elaborate visual essays of form. We need only think of Rodin’s sculptural work, which by the very nature of the medium requires prolonged effort to bring to realization. His bronzes show refracted surfaces, the light on bodies taken also into more elaborate places than the quick study with brush, pencil or charcoal stick.

A large red chalk drawing by Renoir that was part of the exhibit at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, MA. It is a study of about the same size as the oil painting of the same theme in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

A large pastel by the author, with a nod to Renoir and the Impressionist. Pastel can be treated as very process-type of medium with the strokes of pastel left visible rather than blended.

The exhibit wall texts articulate this blending of polarities in Renoir’s work by referring to it as “Classical Impressionism” so as to bring out the debt to the ancients and more so to the Renaissance artist Raphael. After seeing Raphael’s fresco work of the Galatea in The Villa Farnesina in Rome, Renoir had an about face and renounced his previous denunciations of those who would study Raphael.

I loved this exhibit at the Clark however, because it brings to the fore the importance of working from the figure and the nude as a serious and longstanding practice of art. In fact, Renoir conveyed to his friend and artist, Berthe Morisot, just how much relevance he invested in working from the human figure. Morisot said, “that for him the nude was one of the indispensable forms of art.” This career-length endeavor of Renoir’s to portray the nude, shows us how one artist can make the expressions of light on the female form a rewarding pursuit for the painter and a richly benefiting one for the viewer as well. This is attested by the profusion of impressionist exhibits and floodtide of books over the past century and a half. Still the paintings and drawings of the nude are always somewhat pushing the edge just by their potentially racy nature.

In this day and age we see a push back from many quarters and with wariness as well. It is nothing new- even in Michelangelo’s day the church authorities were circumspect if not out right hostile to depictions of the nude, male or female. Today we hear such terms as “male gaze” bandied about, often in a pejorative sense. It connotes to those who use it, I suspect, an animosity to a visual delight that should be taboo and one that affronts decorum if not more. In this day of #metoo it becomes even more volatile. But to level the playing field in the debate somewhat, there are many fine women artists in the realistic figurative tradition. Their work also conveys a sensual delectation in the female nude or male nude for that matter, and it would be hard to tell the difference between their work and those paintings of their male counterparts in many instances. The point here is that appreciation of the nude is not restricted to the "male gaze" but the "female gaze" is equally as sensual- the market is not cornered on delectation of expressions of human anatomy and it is not restricted to either gender. I've even heard from a model that was posing for a sketch class that one of the women that was drawing complained about the pose being too much of a male-gaze. Sounds like projection with an agenda to me, as if to say the model and her body type were somehow complicit in contributing to the student's aversions.

It is always reassuring to see one's take on an issue mirrored later in reviews. An art critic for the Wall Street Journal echoed my own take on this issue of appreciating beauty. Lance Upland in the July 24th issue of the WSJ said in his review; "For anyone who loves painting and sculpture, this is a must-see gathering of nudes from which Renoir emerges triumphant. (This despite the catalog's trendy opportunism by tarring Renoir with the #MeeToo brush- see its many references to the "The Male Gaze" and to Renoir as the unlovable epitome of "the sexist male artist.")

A large mixed media piece by the author inspired by Bougueareau's Nymphs and Satyr painting in the Clark Institute. In this work the setting is the Susquehanna River.

But on to the crux of my essay, which is to bring to the fore the interplay and relationship between the work of Renoir and Bouguereau and more broadly the classical ideals on one side and the grittiness of the everyday on the other. My purpose here is to say the division is overdrawn and exaggerated by many. In fact even during the 19thcentury the rub between the two was frequently mentioned by positioning the impressionists as rebels and upstarts flaunting the bulwark of the Academicians like Bouguerau, and other artists of a similar outlook such as Gerome or Ingres. And to be fair, there is relevance in this bifurcation; and it is often mentioned just how revolutionary the works of Renoir were when first shown. Even more so, a painting like Manet’s “Olympia” a nude, presumably a courtesan staring at us directly was too much for mid-century gentry to handle. Today it strikes us with no affront at all and can simply be marveled at for its beauty.

In the Clark exhibit there were two life size bronze statues by Renoir that underscore my point- of the blurred lines between classicism and genre artworks. One of these depictions of female nudes was titled “Venus Victorious” and depicted a fulsome maiden with no attempt to force her form into those classical proportions or with the characteristic straight nose favored by anyone heretofore attempting to portray the Greek ideal. We think of the marble statues of Antonio Canova or the paintings of Ingres in regards to adhering to this “straight nose” aesthetic. The other bronze nude of Renoir’s was a crouching laundress in the midst of her cleaning labor. So the point is that we see here in one artist an interest in the immediate life as observed and the mythic ideal of a Venus. They may be the same model in fact, and even the Venus is holding a garment draping from her hand to suggest a connection to the laundry being cleaned in the other statue. A melding of the two supposedly diametrically opposed camps has been attained in the work of Renoir.

A sketch from one of the life-size bronze statues by Renoir at the Clark Institute. Classical Impressionism is credo and goal of Renoir- which is reinvigorating the classical tradition of ancient Greece and Rome.

A sketch from one of Renoir's nudes at the Clark Institute. The background included suggestions of the Amalfi coast in Italy where Renoir had traveled. I have also painted there in Ravello and other towns.

Bouguereau by contrast does not so much meld as continue a tradition of the narrative recounted in various myths. He reinvents many myths however, like “Orestes Pursued by The Furies” a huge canvas inspired by the play of Aeschylus, for the audience in the late 19th century of the Paris Salon art exhibits. And he does this with consummate polish, superb composition, drawing and conception with little or minimal trace of process. Whereas Renoir is all about the brush strokes, light and the process of paint application being put on display as much for these acts of pigment placement in bravura gestures of the wrist, arm and eye to be enjoyed by us and Renoir – as opposed to the waxen image of a satin finish canvas in Bouguereau. In other words, the viewer's attention is not arrested so much at the canvas by the display of technique for its own sake in a work by Bouguereau as in Renoir or even more so in Monet.

Which is better? Who knows? As the debate raged at the time and continues somewhat today with no sign of abating. The name “impressionist” was in fact a derogatory appellation of a critic of the time and somehow the name stuck. There are those who say the impressionists are slapdash, sloppy and lacking finesse. Others fault Bougerau for overt sentimentality, being melodramatic and without recording or honoring life as it was in his day or with no relevance to real life. He is known also for his peasant portraits, which would seem to be a nod to the salt-of-the-earth type of people of the countryside in 19th century France- yet these expressions seem highly rarefied and even removed. Yet, who cannot love them, these charming peasant girls with geese or even feel one's heart open to the destitute homeless mother and children of Bouguereau, even with this classical overlay? They are works of great beauty and still convey an authentic vision that connects the everyday to the archetype.

Other masters of this genre come to mind like the canvases of the Knight Brothers, Ridgeway and Aston Knight. The work of these two masters first came into my awareness when their paintings were featured at Cornell University’s Johnson Museum in 1989. Their canvases are similar to Bougeureau’s in capturing peasant life with a related type of romanticism.

The pastel drawings of Renoir in the Clark show were wonderful to see, as they often show process at its most revealing way and underscore the separate approach between the two schools or approaches I am focusing on here. Pastels as utilized especially by Degas’ late works and to some extent by Renoir show the application of this pigment in short choppy strokes. This technique has informed my own approach to pastel and in turn the process application has been mentioned to me more than once as viewers say my oil paintings have a connection to pastel works.

We can ascribe these two artists considered here to the two categories of either classical or genre art but we see that both crossed into the other territory. We may also see this categorizing in the Rubenista versus Poussinista camp. Rubens is of course the emotional process and expressive corollary to Renoir and Poussin the predecessor to Bourgeau in sensibility and with his homage to the purity of Attic classicism. I mention these polarities as a final bracketing of schools, that as I have contended here, are less strict and more permeable than some would have us believe.

Before closing I will mention briefly the critics of Renoir and they come from such diverse quarters as the Washington Post and social media. Bouguereau has had his detractors as well. For example Kenneth Clark in his book, "The Nude, A Study of Ideal Form" regarded Bouguereau's paintings as to be consigned to the lobbies of third rate hotels and Clark thought his work contained too much "lubricity" whatever that was intended to convey. In the Washington Post recently, the reviewer, Sebastian Smee inspires the readers to get their collective noses out of joint with a slug fest over the supposed transgressions of Renoir. To be fair, Smee presents a balanced report by giving credit to those who consider Renoir life-affirming and those who find only disgust in their reactions to his work.

With the art of Renoir and Bouguereau and their depictions on the nude, I suppose we must all find our own chart through the delights and minefields of todays critical reviews and museum shows. I for one revel in these ambitious and scholarly presentations such as the current exhibit at the Clark Institute.

The two statues mentioned here in the text- of Venus Victorious and a laundress. The classical and the mundane combined with the female nude as the embodiment and allegory of both traditions.

A wall plaque from the Clark Institute- reminding us of the benefits of art. This inscription greets the visitor as they enter the permanent collection.

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Jun 26, 2019

Hi Brian

Very thoughtful post on Renoir and the nude! I tried to send an email with further comments to the info address above and it did not go through. Problem on your end?

I think we'd have a lot to discuss... see my site at


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