Renoir: Rococo Revival

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams is an artist, critic and poet, based in the UK. He writes art criticism for The Critic, Standpoint, Apollo, Burlington Magazine, Print Quarterly, Printmaking Today, The Jackdaw and other publications. He publishes articles on censorship and free speech, as well as book reviews, on Spiked-Online.

The recently closed exhibition Renoir: Rococo Revival (Städel Museum, Frankfurt, 2 March-19 June 2022), relied on the excellent collection of both Rococo and Impressionist art to present Renoir and Impressionists as heirs to Eighteenth Century French painting. Rococo was the decorative style of late Baroque art in period 1715-1780, that originated in the court art of France, but which spread to Southern Germany, Italy and Austro-Hungary. It is characterised by the emphasis on curling natural forms, especially shells, lightness of tone, with an aim to titillate, amuse, arouse or instruct the viewer. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

Director of the museum, Philipp Demandt, sets out the thesis of the exhibition. “Unlike his colleagues Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and others, Renoir concentrated not on landscape but portraits and figural compositions in which he could easily pick up the thread of the Rococo’s genre scenes. And his depictions can indeed be read as new interpretations of Watteau’s fêtes galantes, Boucher’s pastorals and Fragonard’s elegant companies in fantastical gardens – now, however, freed of the moralistic undercurrent that had been a constitutive element of such works during the Ancien Régime. Instead, it was Renoir’s painterly representations of the lustre of skin, the iridescent sheen of glass and porcelain and the ever-magnificent and fashionable clothing of his female protagonists that forged links to the painting of that past age.”

During his lifetime, Renoir saw himself as a descendent of the Rococo painters. He supposedly said, “I am of the eighteenth century. I humbly consider not only that my art descends from Watteau, Fragonard, Hubert Robert, but even that I am one of them.” As curator Alexander Eiling points out, Rococo was a touchstone for discussion of Renoir’s art in the Nineteenth Century but that it became invisible in the following century, when referents became Dutch, Spanish and English painting, japonisme, Barbizon School and the realism of Courbet. Indeed, one might posit that Renoir’s occlusion in the later Twentieth Century is not just a matter of taste, but precisely because the emphasis on social realism, realism and foreign genre painting in Impressionist studies does not fit Renoir’s oeuvre. Rococo was an art of diversion and indulgence, a perfect grounding for Renoir, peintre du bonheur.   

From 1854 to c. 1858, Renoir had a job as a decorator of ceramics, working in the rococo tradition. He never rejected the decorative and pretty aspects of art. It seems that the humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War sparked a patriotic revival of support for Rococo as a national style, shorn of the connotations of decadent Ancien Régime. This does seem to push directly counter to interpretations of Impressionism as a fusion of realism, social critique and application of optical science. Add to this the “socially progressive” attitudes of some of the Impressionists (primarily Pissarro), and we find ourselves facing conflicting interpretations. Naturally, every movement (and in every complex artist) we see a confluence of influences that are to some degree contradictory. So, rather than seeing two opposite trends – “retrograde” Rococo and “progressive” social realism – struggling for the soul of Impressionism (or the credibility of historians of Impressionism), we would do better to consider the trends as co-existing sentimental attachments rather than considered conceptual positions.

Eiling points out that the Goncourt brothers and Théophile Thoré both “rediscovered” the Rococo as a distinctly French art form. The Louis La Caze donation to the Louvre, which went on display in 1870, making additional works by Fragonard and Watteau available to Parisians. Diderot considered Boucher a painter of (and for) women, characterising Boucher (and, by extension, Rococo painting) as feminine art, art that would be supplanted by the masculinity of David and Neo-Classicism. Certainly, this was how Neo-Classicism was regarded in its day and largely so since: the necessary cleansing of an era of decadent soft art with a purgative wave of moralistic hard art.

The fête galante is an ideal comparator for Renoir’s scenes of lower-class and lower-middle-class summer revelry. In Renoir’s early scenes set around Paris, on the café terraces of Montmartre and on the banks of the Seine, we get updated versions of Watteau’s scenes of nobility in cultivated pastoral settings engaging in flirtation and intrigue. The class levels have changed and the timelessness has been pinned down to explicitly the modern day (the latest bonnet, the current awning, the common matchbook), but the atmosphere and personal dynamics are carried over. Perhaps, we could say that revelry, flirtation, merriment and body language are nearly an unchanging constant in human relations.

In his catalogue essay, Guillaume Faroult investigates what Rococo art was on public display during the Nineteenth Century and consequently what the Impressionists would have seen. The reception of Rococo art via French museums was muted in the early half of the century, no doubt a lingering coolness to art associated with the French court and the dominance of Neo-Classical works acquired during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. In the 1820s Rococo paintings were sold for a pittance and the circle of knowledgeable collectors for the style small and not especially well-heeled. Only slowly – and by way of donation – did good Rococo paintings enter the Louvre from the 1840s to the 1870s.

Renoir’s taste for the art of courtly France is described as reactionary. The fact that he appreciated Fragonard, Boucher and Watteau as upholders of an older order – and not as paragons of proto-modernity – does tend to reinforce this view. Perhaps it is discernment of the connection between Boucher and Renoir that led to Renoir being so excoriated by critics. Both artists worked in ceramics and Renoir had copied Boucher on vases while working at the factory in his youth.

The selection of works for the exhibition – and illustrated full-page in the catalogue section of the book – are very good and include many unexpected delights. The fêtes galantes of Henri Baron, Émile Wattier, Jean-Baptiste Pater and Narcisse Diaz de la Peña are less familiar than Watteau’s. There is a full-length portrait of a woman by Ernest Meissonier, master of pompier art. The swathes of lace ruffles at the hem of the subject’s dress dominate the lower third of the canvas. This follows the sensuousness and attention to fabric paid by Boucher and Fragonard. Boucher’s (in)famous portrait of Louise O’Murphy travelled from Cologne to Frankfurt for the exhibition. The Renoirs come from around the world and include some masterpieces. It is nice to see Richard Guino’s bronzes, executed under supervision of the elderly Renoir, included in the display. Sculpture (and especially bas reliefs) were a feature of courtly decorative art, so it is understandable that Renoir was drawn to the field. Renoirs still-lifes are well paired with Chardin’s.

Essays by specialists discuss the drawings of Renoir, journal reproductions of Rococo, Renoir and decoration and Renoir’s portraiture and pastel painting of the Eighteenth Century. One text links Renoir, Charles Joshua Chaplin and Rococo art, looking at the distinction between decorative art and the art of the boudoir. Chaplin was noted for his Rococo brushwork and palette. Chaplin had also etched reproduction prints after Watteau. A fascinating article by Michela Bassu recounts the work done by Lionello Venturi towards a catalogue raisonné of Renoir, which remained unfinished and unpublished. Pages of notes, clipped illustrations and lists show Venturi gathering data and formulating assessments. Venturi (who wrote the first catalogue raisonné of Cézanne) considered Rococo art to be a key influence on Renoir. The footnotes and bibliography are extensive and Hatje Cantz have taken its usual care to ensure high production quality.  

Besides being a pleasurable book on Renoir – enthusiasts will not be disappointed by the illustrations – Renoir: Rococo Revival is a valuable source not only for those studying Renoir and the Impressionists, but also anyone seeking to understand the reception, and revival in fortunes of, Rococo art in Nineteenth Century France.

Alexander Eiling (ed.), Renoir: Rococo Revival, Hatje Cantz, 2022, cloth hardback, 328pp, 350 col./mono illus., €50, ISBN 978 3 7757 5134 6

© 2022 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art