NATIONAL GALLERY LONDON: RENOIR LANDSCAPES
By Ashley Eldridge-Ford in London
As a treat to myself on my birthday weekend and to, I must confess, escape the heat of our London streets, I retreated into the hallowed halls of the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square to see the "Renoir Landscapes 1865 - 1883" exhibition. Swivelling one's head left and right upon entry into the first gallery, what stands out is the scintillating luminescence of the paintings within the room, not every painting, but the odd few that really stand out. They are of a varied subject matter - two couples within in a landscape, a regatta, a wheatfield. Drawn instantly to them, I restrained myself and began at the beginning, as is the flaw of an art historian.
The first painting that I chose for close scrutiny, one of Renoir's earliest ('A Clearing in the Woods', 1865), is instantly reminiscent of the landscape painters of the 18th century, such as the British painter, John Constable. It is the flattened use of colour, heavy on the side of brown, the rather plain use of paint smoothed across the canvas and a very obviously meticulous construction of the scene that creates this comparison. The second work, 'Jules Le Coeur and his Dogs walking in the Forest of Fontainbleau', 1866,, it is fascinating to see Renoir's first attempt to portray light as more than a wash across a scene. What is instantly recongnisable as 'Renoir' is the beard of the figure in the scene, who stands still within a canopy of trees above and around him. He stands, lord of the forest, looking up and away from the viewer towards where the forest path is to take him. The beard is soft and, for want of a better descriptive word, fuzzy, in that charachteristically Renoir fashion but the figure is painted with plain featureless strokes that render him nothing more than a shape in the forest's shadows. What you see breaking through the trees and Renoir's style is the attempted creation of lambenting light flickering from between the trees' leaves. The paint here is carefully dabbed and are looser, there is a softness to the landscape in the grass with touches of rust coloured paint and pale dappled greens. These remind me very much of the early works of Monet (in the exhibition still on at the Royal Academy) as he explored the styles and means of representation open to him.
The next piece ('Country Road near Marlotte', 1865 - 6) is smaller and instantly looks towards the work of Henri Rousseau; it is stylised, flat, the colours are pale and featureless. It is interesting to know that this piece was admitted to and accepted by the Paris Salon on 1866 but subsequently withdrawn when the jury refused another of his entries. And then the curators did a wonderful thing, they hung Monet's 'Bathers at La Grenouillere' alongside Renoir's 'La Grenouillere' both of 1869 when the artists were painting shoulder to shoulder. The two pieces are hard to tell apart at first without knowledge of which is whoms but slowly, upon close inspection, certain unmistakable examples of the two artists different style stand out. Where Monet's treatment of the trees in the background and the figures in the foreground are reduced to flattened brushstrokes of colour, whereby they appear to float from the canvas' surface, Renoir's trees are painted in his signature soft and diffused fashion (which one can see has developed rapidly from the second work in the exhibition over three years) and the figures are delicately represented with attention to detail.
As becomes clear during the remainder of the exhibition, Renoir is extremely adept at creating a dance of light on the figures who populate his paintings, more so than of light itself on a landscape. This is the start, in terms of the painterly record, of what is to be an extremely fruitful friendship between the two artists, which leaves one feeling that many of the paintings are familiar and that the scenes recognisable from those painted also by Monet. It's a strange feeling of deja vu. Two charming additions to Renoir's 'La Grenouillere' is of a dog lying stretched out on his side on the circular jetty at the feet of those who stand around him, whilst another paws at a docked rowboat as he weighs up the prospect of jumping into it. They add a touch of life to the scene where Monet's is without. 'La Promenade', 1870, has the figure of a girl who is attempting to look coyly away from the gentleman holding her hand with one of his whilst with the other he holds aside some of the foliage surrounding them. It is in this painting that Renoir's use of white in the representation of light appears fully developed. The light flickers and moves across the woman's dress and gentleman's shoulders and adds a vitality to the scene. As with many of Renoir's paintings, however, standing up close to them reduces the full effect and it is really only upon standing back some distance that the full effect of light and movement can be seen. There is a wonderful record of Monet and Renoir's friendship in 'Claude Monet painting in his Garden at Argenteuil', around 1873. Monet is surrounded by a dense foliage of roses in heavy pinks, yellow and red; the heads of these hang so droopily so as to give the impression of a lazy warm summer's evening. The brushstrokes here are flickering and gentle and break up the light dollops of applied paint. There is an air of harmony between them and in the garden itself.
Stepping into gallery 2 it becomes clear that Renoir's style has reached maturity. The figures are used to express light and as the centre point for his chosen landscape. Figures appear to hold his landscapes together, like a nucleus, such as in 'Confidences (La Tonnelle)', about 1874 and 'Woman with a Parasol and a Small Child on a Sunlit Hillside', 1874. In this gallery we see for the first time scenes painted in the city - 'La Place St-Georges', 'Les Grands Boulevards' and 'Le Square de La Trinite' all of 1875. Despite his feeling that the mid-19th century redevelopment of Paris has been insensitive, he communicates through his paintings an air of excitement and modernity, of movement and bustle. One piece that stood out for me was 'Woman at the Seaside, Seascape', 1879 - 80. A female figure sits in the middle distance looking away from the viewer. Gently rolling hills surrounding her on every side, they seems to undulate like a waterbed. Despite her being still, she could be gently bobbing as though on water. The division between land and water is hard to discerne for the colours are similar shades of pale green and blue. Boats hang weightless in what appears to be the sea, although it could well be an extension of the foreground, they seem to slowly pace across the scene. They and the female figure are as much a part of the landscape as the land and the water.
Gallery 3 explodes with colour. These paintings date from the period when Renoir spent time in Algiers and in Venice (1881). 'The Jardin d'Essai, Algiers', 1881, is a brightly coloured firework display of oranges, reds, blues and greens in the representation of a lush, tropical garden. It becomes rather instantly obvious that the light and colours that influence Renoir differ largely from what and where he is painting - seascapes contain exploration of tones (greens, blues, purples), French landscapes are diffused, muted but delicate and these paintings from Algiers and Venice are vibrant, striking, and even joyous. In 'Arab Festival', 1881, an immense crowd teems across the scene swirling themselves around a small group of dancing figures. There is a mass of movement that is in direct comparison to the still unmoving solid white structures of the native's very Arabic dwellings. The whites of these buildings echo the whites circulating across those in the crowd. The scene is one of disorder and vibrancy tempered with the calm order of the buildings. The paintings from Venice are strongly reminiscent of those of Monet but also of Canaletto (although this could be because it is difficult to look at painted versions of familiar Venetian landmarks without thinking of Canaletto) - 'Venice, the Doge's Palace', 'Piazza San Marco, Venice' and 'Gondola, Venice', all 1881. One piece that stands out strongly is 'The Bay of Naples (Morning)', 1881. The broad sweep of the bay is looked over by what is meant to be Vesuvius but which looks rather remarkably like Mount Fuji. The pale colours and this rather oddly familiar but unfamiliar mountain brings to mind 19th century Japanese prints. The painting is constructed of strong diagonals created by the masts and sails of the boats docked in the bay at the harbour and the bay swarms with figures who go about their early morning business on foot, carriage or on horse. A light haze is poised over the scene.
In gallery 4 'Rocky Crags at L'Estaque', 1882, lead me to draw instant comparisons to the work of Cezanne, not just from the title, but from the structure of the blocky rocks and the flattened brushstrokes. The foreground and background are reversed through use of warm colours in the background and cooler in the foreground. The painting technique, use of colour and light is indeed more restrained, which is perhaps representative of the sun and its effect on the white rock of the landscape but perhaps more so of the influence of Cezanne with whom he spent time in 1882. Another rather striking piece is 'The Wave', 1882, which is composed of prime colours embedded in the white thick impasto building up the swirls and foam of a wave. Bright strokes of turquoise and blue in the wave are placed against the purples in the sky. The skyline is broken and punctuated by a variety of blue sailboats. There is turmoil in the waves and in the colours, and a violence in the thickly impasto, unmixed white that appears to have been applied directly onto the canvas with a palette knife, which was a technique Renoir had recently begun to practice. The remainder of works in gallery 4 are very typical of Renoir's style and are beautiful for their technique but perhaps a little less inventive and exploratory.
Despite being an extremely well-hung exhibition with some wonderfully chosen works, one confusing element throughout the exhibition was the numbering of pieces which jumped between chronological placement and a numbering system all its own. For those endowed with the very helpful guidebook, this was confusing. There are many things to be seen from this show, in particular the development of Renoir's style and use of light, the influence on these elements of the scene he was painting or the country in which he was painting them, his friendship with Monet and perhaps, most importantly and more interestingly, his unceasing exploration and experimentation during this period in styles, brushstrokes, representation of light and strikingly, of colour. It was after 1883 that he focused on his portraiture and when his work, in my opinion, lost a lot of its edge and gives them impression, after seeing this dynamic period of his work, that perhaps Renoir sold out in the end. His later more stylised 'prettier' work is the poorer for it.