How is the exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art, “Idol of the Moderns: Pierre-Auguste Renoir and American Painting,” like the nighttime sky? Both are filled with brighter and lesser stars that distant observers have joined into constellations, linking their histories. Those trained observers--astronomers, curators--are there to help, to teach, to make connections, but even without them, the stars shine as radiantly.
At least they do in the night sky.
In this show, curators have provided the maps and directed our gaze, but there’s little that’s glorious to see. In the sky, as in the curatorial cosmos, wonders should precede interpretation, not the other way around. Here, the lessons are well-drawn, but the art, which ought to be central, feels secondary, illustrative. We leave the show instructed, but not inspired.
“Idol of the Moderns” aims to demonstrate Renoir’s influence on early 20th century American painters and to reveal his reputation during those years as innovative, a forerunner of modernism. Twelve of the show’s 40 paintings are by Renoir (1841-1919), and the rest by Americans such as George Wesley Bellows, Mary Cassatt, Andrew Dasburg, William Glackens, Frederick Carl Frieseke, Robert Henri, Henry Lee McFee, Kenneth Hayes Miller and Guy Pene du Bois.
Co-curators Anne Dawson, an art historian whose dissertation formed the basis for the show, and Steven Kern, San Diego Museum of Art’s curator of European art, identify the period from 1904 through 1940 as that of Renoir’s greatest impact in this country. The exhibitions of the renegade Impressionists had secured Renoir’s reputation in France a generation earlier, but wide exposure here didn’t occur until the turn of the century. In the following decades, critics, collectors and artists fueled what a writer for Art News magazine in the 1930s called “the Renoir cult.”
Renoir began to appear in--and dominate--English-language discussions of Impressionism. In a seminal 1903 book, he was described as “the most lyrical, the most musical, the most subtle” of the Impressionists. He had his first solo show in New York in 1908, and half a dozen more in the next 10 years. Critics hailed his use of vibrant color, the accessibility of his subject matter, its optimism, gaiety and sentimentality.
An intense demand for his work ensued. The Metropolitan Museum of Art bought a significant portrait of his. Collector Duncan Phillips bought one of his most important paintings, “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” When Albert Barnes opened his foundation outside Philadelphia in 1922 with a collection of 400 works by French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, roughly 150 of them were by Renoir.
Many American artists, especially those who had studied abroad, had become acquainted with Renoir before his rise in the U.S. Though Frieseke trailed after Monet in Giverny, he acknowledged Renoir as his true stylistic mentor, particularly because they both favored the nude. Frieseke’s “Nude in Dappled Sunlight” (1915) is a violet-soaked confection that takes its cue from Renoir’s treatment of light and shadow as substantive, palpable. (The effect had one of Renoir’s critics in the 1870s claiming the canvases looked like they had been in an accident, they were so “flecked” and “striped.”)
Cassatt, who exhibited with the Impressionists in Paris, is also represented here, by a sketchy portrait of a young girl. The painting hints only generally of her kinship with Renoir, and of her own remarkable talents, which were more closely aligned with Degas.
Renoir’s reach stretched beyond the American Impressionists into the camps of realism. Glackens, who showed with The Eight (also called the Ashcan School, for the humility and sometimes the darkness of their subject matter) was often discussed--and dismissed--in terms of his adaptations of Renoir’s compositions and brush stroke.
Glackens’ paintings here may be derivative, but the American brought his own verve to the scenes. His “Family Group” (1910-11) is refreshingly off-kilter emotionally, whereas its models, Renoir’s group portraits (two of which are on view here), gloss over any ambiguity of mood to create a seamless veneer of gentility.
Other members of The Eight appear here as well--John Sloan, George Luks and Henri, whose expressive, spontaneous painting style owes more to Manet, Goya and Chase than to Renoir. Eugene Speicher, a student of Henri’s, is represented by an earnest, melancholy portrait, and Isabel Bishop, another urban realist, shows a sprightly drawing of two women chatting on the street during their lunch hour.
Several prominent formalist critics of the 1910s and ‘20s looked upon Renoir as a bridge between tradition and modernism. He used color, they wrote, for its descriptive properties, to articulate form, but also to generate emotional response. They likened the color relationships in his work to those in music, using terms like “sonorous” and “reverberations.” He was credited with laying the foundation for the Synchromists, painters who used color alone to convey rhythm and space. A 1913 Synchromist canvas here by Morgan Russell serves as an adequate example of the approach.
Marsden Hartley’s name is rarely, if ever, uttered in the same breath as Renoir’s, but he, too, was an admirer. Two boldly drawn landscapes from 1919 hang here, alongside excerpts from letters that he wrote to Alfred Stieglitz, stating that in these paintings of New Mexico, “You will see a little Courbet, and a little Renoir, and a little Cezanne, and you will also see myself.”
Comments like this abound in the wall texts for the show and its catalog, and they make a convincing case on paper for Renoir’s relevance to each of the artists included. The lines of connection are well-drawn. Still, the works chosen as points between these lines haven’t enough strength of their own. They illustrate the lesson, but don’t, in themselves, make it matter.
The underwhelming character of the show begins and ends with Renoir himself, whose critical standing dropped in the 1940s and never fully recovered. His paintings here--nudes, portraits and images of young women reading--have a sweetness that all too often crosses over into the saccharine. The colors are vibrant, but never vigorous. Even the critic James Gibbons Huneker, who championed Renoir as a proto-modernist, acknowledged that “Renoir was never a difficult painter.” There are complex, richer examples of Renoir’s work to stand in the artist’s defense, but not here. The paintings at the San Diego museum are marshmallow soft, and just as bland. “Idol of the Moderns” does its job in outlining the constellation it proposes. But it doesn’t offer much in the way of joyful stargazing.
“Idol of the Moderns: Pierre-Auguste Renoir and American Painting,” San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park, (619) 232-7931, through Sept. 15. Closed Monday.