Last week, when God-Hates-Renoir protesters rallied outside the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, there was only one reason why anyone might have been surprised to see them there. The museum isn’t mounting a big Renoir show, or celebrating the artist in some other way. Any institution foolhardy enough to do so knows by now to expect some kind of pushback, because everyone hates Renoir, and everyone always has. Maybe even, yes, God.
So there wasn’t, in fact, a new or timely reason for the protesters to gather where and when they did—they just really hate Renoir. Max Geller, the leader of a group called Renoir Sucks at Painting, organized the strike earlier this week. And it’s fair to say Geller has strong feelings about the artist. Yesterday, after he received some counter-criticism from The Boston Globe’s art critic, Sebastian Smee—who called the protest at the MFA “sophomoric”—Geller challenged him to a duel on Boston Common. But in denouncing the anti-Renoir movement as a stunt, even Smee wasn’t going so far as to stand up for Renoir.
“Is it worth getting worked up about Renoir?” asked Smee. “He is an artist I detest most of the time. Such a syrupy, falsified take on reality.”
Looking back through art history, it’s clear that thinking Renoir sucks is a popular and well-established sentiment. Plainly, though, he must have had fans, or people wouldn’t feel obliged to organize against him today. It’s easy to see the early appeal: Renoir fell in with a camp of innovators, the French Impressionists working in the late 19th century, who were pushing the medium of painting forward, and art collectors and capitalists like Albert Barnes and Duncan Phillips rushed forward to support the new modernism. But not all of the experimental works that made the bulk of early modern-art collections has aged well. In hindsight, some of these investments were mistaken.
The complaints from Geller’s group sound like praise in comparison to the worst insults that have been hurled Renoir’s way. Then and now, critics complain that Renoir was promiscuous with color. That he paid no heed to line and composition. His works were never formal explorations of light and shadow, like Monet’s, or social critiques of the turn-of-the-century era, like Manet’s. One of Impressionism’s fiercest critics, Albert Wolff, a writer for Le Figaro, wrote in 1874 that what Renoir did with paint was unnatural, maybe even unholy. “Try to explain to M Renoir,” he wrote, “that a woman’s torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh with green and purple spots that indicate the state of total putrefaction in a corpse!”
According to historians, Renoir took criticism like this to heart. He was reluctant to give up his day job as a ceramicist early on; even after he found some measure of commercial success, he insisted on being labeled as a craftsman, not an artist. Renoir never developed much confidence in his game. “Painting was intended, was it not, to decorate walls,” he asked his friend and fellow traveler, the painter Albert André, in 1919. Late in life, he sounded doubtful and defensive. “For me ... a painting should be something to cherish, joyous and pretty, yes pretty!”
So what is it about Renoir that’s made him so enduring? In 1946, the kingmaker and critic Clement Greenberg said that Renoir’s paintings “verged on prettiness, but it is perhaps the most valid prettiness ever seen in modernist art.” Damning with faint praise, for certain. But there’s something to what Clem said that helps explain why people who love art don’t love Renoir. For the same reason that Wolff rejected Renoir, Barnes and Phillips embraced him: Renoir was engaging fully with modernism. But he only painted the bawdiest, most gauche subjects, and did so in a way that was formally indiscriminate at best and stomach-churningly saccharine more often than not. As much as any artist, Renoir helped to develop the theory and practice of Impressionism. But to what end?
The Dalhousie University art historian Leonard Diepeveen compiled some of these anecdotes in The Difficulties of Modernism, a book that attempts to explain (among many topics) the Problem of Renoir. Here was an artist who appeared to embrace the methods of early modernism but none of its revolutionary goals. His paintings are pleasure writ large. Renoir’s closest cousin artistically may be Jeff Koons, an anti-hero who uses every contemporary mode in the market to make work about concentrated, crystalline gratification.
Don’t feel too bad for Renoir. He was an anti-Semite who lacked even the courage of his wrongest convictions. During the Dreyfus affair—the political scandal that split French high society at the turn of the last century—Renoir sided with those who believed that Captain Alfred Dreyfus (who was Jewish) had committed treason. Publicly, he charted a moderate position, per his son’s sympathetic biography. But Julie Manet, a young ingenue who Renoir took up as his protege, records in her diary much nastier things Renoir had to say about Jews, including some of his Impressionist colleagues.
His beliefs are disappointing, of course, if maybe not the right frame for understanding Renoir’s paintings. But if God does in fact hate Renoir, at least he has a decent moral reason to do so. For the rest of us, his insipid, chintzy, gauzy paintings will simply have to do.