Pierre-Auguste Renoir's nine-canvas exhibition at the Frick Collection is a redemption. Never have I seen a gathering of Renoirs present itself with such force.
This is significant, because force wasn't Renoir's strong suit. Of all the painters of the late 19th century, the shortcomings and excesses of Impressionism appear most often in Renoir. His application of oils was more likely than that of his colleagues to look dissipated rather than diaphanous. Over time, his drawing and his color sense increasingly failed him. Late Renoir is a horror show of doughy, cranberry-stained giantesses, mushed into landscapes of prismatic noise.
But in the mid-1870s and for a decade afterward, Renoir painted some of the masterworks of the era. It was then that he produced La Promendade (1875-76), one of the jewels of the Frick's Impressionist holdings. Around this canvas, the museum has organized "Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting," which brings together premier examples thereof to the East Gallery.
The full-length portrait was a Salon category for a time, but Renoir slated La Promenade for the Second Impressionist Exhibition. The son of a tailor and a seamstress, Renoir knew fashion, and the children in La Promenade are dressed in winter garments specific enough that the catalogue can identify them as velvet paletots "trimmed with either swansdown or white mink." One hopes that Renoir was commensurately bundled up for the painting's frosty critical reception. "From far off one sees a bluish fog, from which six chocolate pastilles forcefully emerge," wrote Arthur Baignères. "As one gets closer, one realizes that these pastilles are the eyes of three people and the fog a mother and her young daughters." Critics instead doted on Monet's La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume), a masterful but garish and stilted painting now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The Frick show reunites Dance in the City and Dance in the Country from the Musée d'Orsay with Dance at Bougival from the MFA Boston. All painted in 1883 and over seventy inches high, they show what great work Renoir could do with that elegant rectangle. In each, a couple stands close, in motion, he in a dark blue suit and she in a nacreous dress, his face partly hidden, hers exposed. All are triumphs, and together one can see Renoir working out the possibilities of poses and compositions with inventive verve. But Bougival is especially fine. The woman's expression is knowing. Her dress is an atmosphere of rose. On the ground, a discarded bouquet of violets and some stamped-out cigarettes suggest a richer narrative than the simple one suggested at first glance.
Perhaps best of all is Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando (Francisca and Angelina Wartenberg), on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago. This 1879 painting depicts young circus performers in gold-fringed outfits. One girl has collected oranges thrown to them in congratulations, while the other gestures as if winding up for a full bow. Subtle shifts of precision and softness throw the two figures not only into different spaces, but into slightly different times, with a slower universe around the closer figure. The artist's touch is perfect, his signature softness lending even the sawdust floor a luminous delicacy. Renoir's powers wouldn't stay at such heights, but this painting and its temporary neighbors at the Frick Collection attest that those powers were, at times, stratospheric.