In (Moderate) Defense of Renoir

Okay. I wasn’t going to step into this “Renoir Sucks at Painting” debate, but it doesn’t seem to be going away as quickly as I thought it would, and I’ve got some opinions on the matter.

  1. In case you haven’t been following the story, a guy named Max Geller has started a movement decrying the work of Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Aptly, his movement is called “Renoir Sucks at Painting.” He started an Instagram account and gathered together a group of protesters outside the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Pictures show what looks more like an anti-abortion protest than anything related to the art world, with protesters holding signs that say “GOD HATES RENOIR” and “BOYCOTT TREACLE.” After Boston Globe critic, Sebastian Smee, called his protest “sophomoric,” Geller challenged him to a duel, so I suppose I should tread carefully here.
  1. The various articles I’ve read discussing Geller’s movement have weighed in with something along the lines of: “This is pretty silly, but Geller has a point; Renoir was a loathsome anti-Semite who hopped on the modernist bandwagon in the most superficial way, producing saccharine and boring paintings.” (See this Atlantic article, for a fairly balanced take. The Verge has a less balanced article, which concludes, “Of course, you might just like how Renoir’s paintings look, but in that case there’s no helping you at all.”)
  1. I’m not a Renoir scholar or even a nineteenth-century scholar. Still, I know a thing or two about art and am not so quick to dismiss Renoir. What I know about him as a person says, yes, he was a pretty bad guy, but I’m talking about Renoir the artist, not Renoir the person. He wouldn’t be an artist that I’d necessary champion under ordinary circumstances, but I do think you can look at his work and find more than just “treacle.” Must a work of art have a powerful social commentary to be good? Does it need to be leading the cutting edge, stylistically, to be worthwhile? Can it present a world seen through rose-colored glasses and still have something valuable to say? I think so.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jeanne Durand Ruel, 1876 (via Wikimedia Commons)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jeanne Durand Ruel, 1876 (via Wikimedia Commons)

There’s more beneath the surface of Renoir’s paintings than his opponents give him credit for. To me, his portraits are often intense and penetrating. To me, his landscapes can be mysterious to the point of being eerie. To me, his urban scenes, like the famed Moulin de la Galette are vignettes of places that throb with life and what seem to be very real human interactions and emotions. I feel certain that his presence in the canon of art history is not off base.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le Moulin de la Galette, 1867 (via Wikimedia Comons)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le Moulin de la Galette, 1867 (via Wikimedia Comons)

I also find many of his paintings nice to look at. Let’s not let a hipster movement cloud our sense of what is. Sebastian Smee puts it well in his Boston Globe article when he points out “If you want to stage a protest about Renoir, you clearly have other motives. Or no meaningful motives at all.”

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Coucher de soleil à Douarnenez, 1883 (via Wikimedia Commons)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Coucher de soleil à Douarnenez, 1883 (via Wikimedia Commons)
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