Renoir paintings of his later years are on display at LACMA

Severely crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, 71-year-old painter Pierre- Auguste Renoir agreed in 1912 to one last attempt at walking. But when the doctor lifted him from his wheelchair, Renoir managed to go just a few steps before he told the doctor that to walk would take "all my willpower, and I would have none left for painting. If I have to choose between walking and painting, I'd much rather paint."

Renoir never did walk again, filmmaker Jean Renoir recalled in his book, "Renoir, My Father," but he did paint successfully for many more years. He would be brought into his studio and seated in front of a canvas, where a paintbrush would be placed into his fist, a piece of cloth protecting his immobilized fingers from the brush's wooden handle. "The Bathers," his last monumental work, was completed in 1919, the year he died.

Matisse called "The Bathers" Renoir's masterpiece, and Los Angeles museum goers can make their own decisions when an exhibition of that painting and dozens more opens at LACMA on Sunday. Organized with Paris' Musée d'Orsay and Réunion des Musées Nationaux, in collaboration with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the show looks not at the better-known Impressionist works that made Renoir famous but rather at the very different work he produced over his last 30 years.

Like Shakespeare and Beethoven, Cezanne and Picasso, Renoir made the most of his later years. "If you study great artists like Degas, Rembrandt, Goya and Matisse who had long careers, the work looks different as they get older," says Selma Holo, director of the USC Fisher Museum of Art. "They sense the finiteness of life."

But unlike that of the others, Renoir's late work has received less attention in recent years. Highly thought of by collectors, artists and the general public at the time it was created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the work had fallen out of favor by the end of the century.

In the process of coming together for several years, the exhibition is the first to focus on Renoir's late work, combining it with examples from Matisse, Picasso, Bonnard and Maillol to suggest Renoir's influence. Its recently concluded Paris showing drew crowds of nearly 430,000 in three months.

"I think people there were surprised by some of the paintings," says J. Patrice Marandel, LACMA's chief curator of European art, who originated the exhibition. "You have to look at these as if they were by a new painter named Renoir, not the Renoir you think you know."

Shift in imagery

Born in Limoges and raised in Paris, Renoir was the son of a tailor and painted on porcelain and café walls before receiving formal training as an artist. Best known as one of the founders of Impressionism, he participated in key Impressionist exhibitions of the 1870s and produced such well-known paintings as "Luncheon of the Boating Party" and "Ball at the Moulin de la Galette."

But in the 1880s, Renoir's concerns began to change. "He was not so comfortable with Impressionism any more," observes Claudia Einecke, LACMA associate curator of European painting and sculpture. "He felt there should be something more. He didn't want only to record what the eye sees. He also wanted the painting to be about something else -- the history of art and classic, traditional themes. He was interested in artists of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, including Titian and Rubens, his special favorites, but he didn't want to copy them. He wanted to carry on that tradition by creating a new art that combined the spirit of that tradition with painting that responded to modern life."

Consider his paintings of female nudes, Einecke says on an early walk-through of the exhibition. "Reminiscent of Rubens, the body is fuller and more rounded, and it isn't that his models looked like that. He distorted the body to make works of art that expressed his more traditional way of seeing the female as the personification and representation of fecundity. He wanted them to express timeless qualities of femininity."

To help put Renoir's nudes in context, paintings of fleshy Renoir women nestle near a female torso by the French sculptor Aristide Maillol, much as a series of clothed Renoir women at home is juxtaposed with Picasso's later "Woman With a White Hat." Similarly, the curators have placed together two of Renoir's paintings of odalisques ["The Concert" and "Woman With a Mandolin"] with a later Matisse odalisque, "Two Models Resting," which share similarities in their figures and background.

The exhibition catalog is replete with remarks by younger artists like Bonnard about Renoir's influence, complemented by photographs of Renoir artworks in the working studios of Picasso and others. "Matisse tried to have lunch with him once a week, and Picasso regretted that he didn't see more of him," observes Joseph Rishel, senior curator of European painting before 1900 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "Bonnard visited, and Maillol is like late Renoir gone into 3-D."

Many artists made the pilgrimage to the south of France, where Renoir began spending more and more time in the late 1890s. A Bonnard landscape is shown with several of Renoir's paintings around Cagnes, near Nice, where Renoir lived, drawn in part by the forgiving climate that was easier on his rheumatism. Not only did the interesting light appeal to Renoir, says Einecke, but he was taken with "living in the Mediterranean landscape he considered the birthplace of mythology."

His world more limited as he grew older, Renoir painted his Cagnes estate, Les Collettes, and its surroundings, as well as the people nearest to him. The exhibition features several pictures of his sons -- including one given to LACMA by son Jean -- as well as many idealized paintings of family nanny Gabrielle Renard, captured in dozens of late Renoir paintings with and without her clothes.

Renoir also did a great deal of experimenting in his late period, working in a variety of art forms. "It is very important to say that Renoir was always in evolution," observes curator Sylvie Patry at the Musée d'Orsay. "He was often accused of being a commercial artist, but he was also an artist who tried different techniques to the very end of his life."

In 1917, 76-year-old Renoir had a kiln built in his backyard and taught his son Claude pottery making, while just a few years earlier, dealer Ambroise Vollard had persuaded Renoir to try sculpture again. Given the condition of Renoir's hands, Vollard suggested he work with Richard Guino, who had already worked with Maillol. Using Renoir images and ideas, Guino would model the clay, and the two men would discuss the work as it evolved. Guino would then go to Paris and oversee the bronze casting. (Guino later went to the Paris courts to claim co-authorship of the work, which was awarded to him in 1973, and sculptures in this show are jointly credited to him and Renoir.)

Earlier exhibitions have examined the late work of Monet and Cezanne, Picasso and Degas. "What one sees in general is that as the artists get older, more established and less dependent on the market, they tend to do something very different than what they did before," Einecke says. "They don't have to please other people and can please themselves, so their late work can be the most personal in many ways. Not everybody gets better with age, but the ones who retain their creativity do wonderful things."

The same is true, of course, of creative figures in architecture, literature, music and other art forms. "While Beethoven's late style was so radical that his contemporaries wrote it off as the work of a deaf man, late style has often been marked by a return to tradition," observes musicologist Karen Painter, co-editor of the 2002 book "Late Thoughts." Citing such examples as Mahler and Strauss, Painter notes that many composers looked back to earlier artists in their fields, then interpreted what they found in their own ways.

Renoir added to that idea, adds Martha Lucy, senior curator at the Barnes Foundation outside Philadelphia, which has the largest collection of late Renoir in the world. Among several important collectors of the time who bought Renoir's late work, foundation founder Albert C. Barnes "saw Renoir as this bridge between what avant-garde artists like Matisse and Picasso were trying to do and what old masters like Rubens and Titian had done," says Lucy. "I think he saw Renoir as the continuation of the past into the present."

The Barnes Foundation does not lend out its artworks, but most of the Renoirs in the show are not from LACMA. The museum, which owns just two of the late Renoirs, immediately saw the benefits of working with the French institutions, which offered not only more Renoirs but also extensive archives and other resources. The Philadelphia Museum of Art came onboard later, adding its 12 late Renoirs as well as curatorial input.

The exhibition here will have somewhat fewer artworks than in Paris. In some cases, says Einecke, museums and private lenders didn't want to be without their artworks for a year, while other paintings were too fragile to travel overseas. Few Renoir works on paper are extant today, and they are so fragile that they were split among the venues rather than shared.

"Renoir was admired and influential in the early 20th century, and then tastes changed," concludes Einecke. "We want to show that the great works of his late period are on the same level of his early period."

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