A successful Renoir show, as this brilliant example demonstrates, is an exercise in restraint. One vase of flowers or a cute dog too many and Renoir could pitch into the trough of the cloying. But here he is, at his best. The nine paintings, executed between 1874 and 1885, linked by size rather than theme, were assembled by Colin B. Bailey, the Frick’s deputy director, and Peter Jay Sharp, its chief curator. Bailey’s exemplary catalogue both commemorates and explicates the artist’s large-scale paintings.
The Dancer (1874) is a far more audacious work than it appears at first glance. The blue outlining on the ballerina’s body constitutes a harbinger of Expressionism and reminds viewers of the total unreality of the composition. She may have assumed the balletic fifth position, but she stands in a nebulous void that sets her apart from Degas’s studies of dancers in their studio. Here the dancer is art in its own private world, very likely a welcome respite from French history.
The dance motif, now at a more social and erotic level, continues in three spectacular works: Dance in the City, Dance in the Country, and Dance at Bougival (all 1883). All evince a reprise (perhaps a parody) of Baroque technique. In Dance in the City, the woman’s dress cascades down the center of the composition only to be cut short abruptly in the lower right corner. Much in the way 17th-century painters would direct the viewer’s eye to the dramatic center of their compositions, Renoir, with this billowing white dress, draws the eye upward, where the man’s black arms and white gloves entrap his partner as his body seems to blend with hers.
The relationship between the partners in Dance in the Country is not the formal matrimonial embrace seen in Dance in the City. The man here is a seducer, the woman much too plump for the role of elegant femme fatale. She flirts with us with her broad grin and holds up a gaudy fan where no one can fail to see it. The man’s elegant, informal suit suggests, like the straw hat that seems to have blown into the picture, a lark, not a relationship.
Seduction is also afoot in Dance at Bougival, where our attention is drawn to the woman’s dress. Here, reversing Dance in the Country, we follow the flounce of the dress from the extreme left upward, where we see a young woman trying to keep some distance between herself and her amorous partner. That the floor is littered with cast-off flowers (lost virginity?) and burned-out cigarette butts suggests we are witnessing a bourgeois Don Juan undermining the virtue of a pretty country girl.
The Umbrellas (ca. 1881–85) sets aside the overtly erotic and returns to art for art’s sake. A transitional painting, Impressionist on the right, and harder edge on the left, it is an exercise in geometric juxtaposition. The child’s hoop, which catches our eye thanks to the little girl’s flirtatious smile, arrests us first. Then comes the mysterious empty basket carried by the demure young woman, an ellipse. The umbrellas, like conic sections, imply the imposition of a geometric ideal on the chaos of reality. We may think of Renoir as the painter of the pretty, but this dazzling show reminds us he is one of the towering figures of the 19th century.