Reviews: Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners
The heart-breaking task of compiling evidence of the consequences of multiple restorations on Renoir’s “Baigneuse” shown here on July 11 raised the spectre of such having occurred throughout the artist’s oeuvre. Does Renoir remain today the artist that he was originally? Are scholars indifferent to restoration changes and therefore presenting adulterations as if still original and pristine states? To help answer these questions, we consider the record of The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, an institute with high scholarly aspirations that was generously founded on a passionate and well informed love of art.
A large group of the Clark Institute’s Renoirs is on show at the Royal Academy’s “From Paris a Taste for Impressionism” exhibition. In the catalogue the institute’s director, Michael Conforti, boasts that “the Clark is where ideas happen.” In 2003 he declared: “To us at the Clark the quality of the ideas that emanate from the study of a work of art is as important as the quality of the object itself.” An idea yet to happen is that scholars, recognising the need to protect the inherent qualities that creative works of art bring to the party, should attend to the irreversible changes that restorers make. Certainly, some such corrective is overdue to commonly held uncritical assumptions that in whatever condition a picture might be found today, it will be good and perfectly sufficient for any scholarly purpose.
Between 1916 and 1951 Sterling Clark, an intriguing and attractive figure in the grip of a declared passion for Renoir, collected thirty-eight of the artist’s pictures. Since Clark’s death in 1956, five of these have been sold off and many have been restored. The Royal Academy is one of countless stops for the Clark’s currently peripatetic pictures as this intellectually self-regarding institution expands and “renovates”. Although the Academy show’s catalogue offers no evaluation of the present condition of the collection, it contains two fine essays – “Sterling Clark as a Collector”, by James Ganz, and “Refined Domesticity: Sterling Clark’s Aesthetic legacy” by Richard R. Brettell – which might profitably inform such a discussion. Unfortunately, the catalogue taken as a whole and together with two preceding and related exhibition catalogues, “A Passion for Renoir”, 1996/7 at the Clark Institute (Fig. 11), and “Renoir at the Theatre”, 2008 at the Courtauld Gallery (Fig. 12), implicitly presents today’s states of Renoir’s pictures as if they have remained original and authentic.
Brettell shows Clark to have been one of a sizable group of American collector/enthusiasts who pushed Renoir’s prices to record highs in the early twentieth century when the supply of pukka old masters was dwindling (and the modern wheeze of upgrading school works was not yet in full flood). Ganz shows that Clark’s collection comprised a cross-section of a decisively selective part of Renoir’s oeuvre. Considering Renoir to be one of the greatest painters ever, Clark nonetheless abhorred his numerous late nudes (with arms and legs which he likened to “inflated bladders”). Clark felt that the artist’s best painting had been done early, and thirty-one of his thirty-eight Renoirs were painted before 1885, with six from 1881, which year he judged the artist’s finest hour. This discerning and focussed selection gives the Clark collection invaluable force of testimony and the Royal Academy is now showing twenty-one of the institute’s remaining thirty-three Renoirs, but there are further reasons for attending to the present state of Clark’s Renoirs.
Although Ganz, formerly of the Clark institute, makes no mention of the pictures’ conditions today he variously discloses that Clark held that picture restorations do more harm than good; that he viewed art historians with disdain; that he learnt early not to depend on “experts” for guidance; and, that on being bitten by bad professional advice, he had resolved to become his own expert:
“In 1913 Clark bought Portrait of a Lady by Domenico Ghirlandaio and Walking Horse, a bronze by Giambologna. Both purchases were facilitated by the American sculptor George Gray Barnard, who had been a friend of Clark’s father. After being assured that the Ghirlandaio had not been retouched, and a copy of the Walking Horse was a unique cast, Clark subsequently found that both of these claims were false. On a trip to Italy in the summer of 1913 he discovered a postcard of the Ghirlandaio in an altered state, and a copy of the Walking Horse in the Bargello in Florence…”
Clark’s admiration for Renoir is shown to have beeen singular. He had considered Renoir without equal among old masters as a colourist and unsurpassed as a painter, that is, as an applier of paint to canvas. He had granted artists like Leonardo, Ingres, Degas, and Bouguereau to have been Renoir’s superiors in terms only of their “suave line”. He complained of English portraits “overcleaned by Duveen” at the Frick Collection. Above all, Clark’s will of 1946 is cited to show that he had expressly prohibited any restoration of his own to-be bequeathed pictures:
“It having been my object in making said collection to acquire only works of the best quality of the artists represented, which were not damaged or distorted by the works of restorers, it is my wish and desire and I request that the said trustees…permanently maintain in said gallery all works of art bequeathed hereunder in the condition in which they shall be at my death without any so-called restoration, cleaning or other work thereon, except in the case of damage from unforeseen causes, and that none of them be sold, exchanged or otherwise disposed of…”
So, we now know that Clark’s Renoirs had been carefully selected on both artistic criteria and excellence of physical condition. That the trustees subsequently disposed of five of these Renoirs is acknowledged but not explained – had they legally overturned the bequest’s conditions or simply ignored them? Fortunately, their writ does not run to undoing historical visual evidence, and Ganz is to be applauded for reproducing the two-page Life magazine photo-spread from 1956, and thereby giving today’s viewers a glimpse of the state of some thirty untouched-by-Clark (and possibly never previously touched) Renoirs at that historic juncture. Although the catalogue reproduction is small, it is sufficient, when viewed within the exhibition, to show that were Clark’s Renoirs to be so-assembled once more, some at least, would not be the same pictures. (See Figs. 7, 8, 9 and 10.)
With photographic records, when due allowances are made for technical variations and vagaries of reproduction methods, a given photograph affords testimony on the dispositions of tones or hues within a given work at a particular moment under a particular light. With modern artists, where first photographs frequently pre-date first restorations, it is striking that similar patterns of weakening recur in the historic photographic record. There is a simple, elegant proof that such changes pinpoint injuries: it would not be possible today to photograph works in a manner that might replicate their earlier appearances. How might the face seen at Fig. 23, for example, now be photographed so as to show the qualities formerly recorded in Fig. 22? Often the weakening is of a general overall “washing-out”, “scrubbing-away”, “Brillo-padding” character. Often, it is seen in local disruptions of original values and relationships. Often, both types occur together. Often one can witness an after-image halo effect where original material has been removed – in Renoir, hair would seem to be especially prey to such injuries (see Fig. 4).
In assembling the pictorial evidence opposite, we were horrified by a realisation that within the general restoration mayhem, a systematic undoing of a rare but distinctive and precious Renoir type of female face has taken place on two major Renoir paintings, both of which, thanks to the Clark exhibition, are found presently in London. These are his 1880 “A Box at the Theater (At the Concert)”, which is said in the current Royal Academy catalogue to be “The last and arguably most ambitious of Renoir’s depictions of elegantly dressed figures seated in theatre boxes”, (see Figs. 4, 11 and 15 to 20), and his earlier 1874 “La Loge (The Theatre Box)”, which was described in the 2008 Courtauld Gallery catalogue as “one of the iconic paintings of Impressionism and a major highlight of the Courtauld Gallery” (see Figs. 1, 2, 3, 12 and 21 to 24). If the appraisals are sound enough, the surrounding explications on these two great works are artistically inadequate.
To take the Clark’s “A Box at the Theater” first: in the 2012 Royal Academy catalogue entry it is said variously that the picture is: “marked by warm colours and rich brushwork”; that “the woman on the left, resplendent in a full length evening gown, looks directly at the viewer”; that the woman and her younger companion “seem lost in reverie”. The scene is said to be situated in a theatre (even though when first exhibited in 1882 it was under the title “Une loge à l’Opéra”): “the background details suggest a theatre rather than the recently opened Palais Garnier”, and “Without the dark red curtain and the fluted pilaster, it would be difficult to locate this scene in a theatre at all.”
Needless to say, this is a reading of the picture as it is today. There is acknowledgement that radical changes had been made by Renoir during the execution of the picture but no acknowledgement of the fact that the architectural features said to locate the scene in a theatre or an opera house have been almost washed away – see Figs. 15 and 16. It is said that the picture had originally been commissioned as a portrait of the daughters of a French Under-Secretary of State for Fine Arts who had subsequently rejected it. It is said that Renoir had then reworked the picture, generalising the sitter’s features, and at some stage had painted out a male figure in the background. Specifically, it is acknowledged that Renoir had “also altered certain facial features and changed the hairstyle of the woman on the left”. It is said that when Clark bought the picture in 1928 he greatly admired it and said “the woman is lovely, the colouring, facture and composition great”.
In the earlier 1996 Clark catalogue (Fig. 11), in an entry under the twin headings “Images of Women” and “Society Portraiture” (the latter sub-heading preceding “Bourgeois Pastimes”), it is said that the subjects were not the daughters but the wife and daughter of the Under-Secretary; that the “expensive evening dress of the woman and the plush red interior of the box suggest Charles Garnier’s opulent Opéra”; that far from looking directly at the viewer, the woman’s “glassy, dreamy expression – her mouth forms a slight smile and her eyes look off into the distance” suggests that “she is completely unaware of someone else in her immediate vicinity”. For the author of this entry (Karyn Esielonis) the woman’s “passivity enables the viewer to look at her without interruption and reinforces period conventions that cast the woman as someone to be looked at rather than someone who actively looks” and who, in fact, cooperates with her own bondage by “sinking back into the plush sensuously red material of the loge, so that she may be perused”. While the girl on the right “turns demurely away”, it is expected that, on reaching sexual maturity her behaviour will change accordingly, and, she too, “will become the object of the gaze”. The late John House spoke specifically of “the engendered gaze”.
The Clark picture was included in the 2008 Courtauld show and the catalogue (Fig. 12) provided a bridge between the Theatre/Opera divergence. That is, when the picture was acquired by Renoir’s dealer Durand-Ruel in 1880 it was registered with the title “Une loge au théâtre”, but when exhibited two years later it was titled “Une loge à l’Opéra”. The Courtauld catalogue entry includes an “X-radiograph” and an infra-red photograph, thereby rendering the features of the man who had been painted out in the upper right corner more discernable. The description of the painting itself is as slack as that in the 2012 catalogue and is conducted in terms relative to related pictures: “The canvas is far more muted and conventional in tonality than Café-concert (Au Théâtre)…”
However, if we look at older reproductions of this painting (in our case from 1921 onwards when it was just forty-one years old) we find that the picture, as bought by Clark in 1928, was then different from its present state; different in its general dispositions (see Figs. 15 and 16); and, different in its particulars (see Figs. 17 to 20). As mentioned, the pilaster on the left of the picture has now been almost washed away. Much of the former shading around the woman’s eyes has been lost, with the result that the pupils and irises of the eyes increasing resemble a pair of olives set adrift on a plate (Figs. 4 and 20). Her hair has been lightened. The expression on her mouth has changed. The end of the glove on her right arm has been redrawn. Crucially, her gaze no longer fixes on the viewer as it may have done in 1925 (Fig. 15).
Like the Clark picture, the Courtauld “La Loge” may have been (?) unrestored when bought in 1925 by Samuel Courtauld who cherished “its subtle charm of surfaces” and placed in the music room of his house in Portman Square. Like Clark, Courtauld passed his collection to the public domain upon his death in 1948. The head of the Courtauld Gallery, Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen, speaks in the 2008 catalogue of the picture having been “lent to exhibitions internationally, and reproduced countless times in numerous media”, adding “And yet, in some respects, fame has also veiled this picture, its familiarity and its reductive status as an archetype of Impressionism perhaps acting against close scrutiny.” While ever closer scrutiny is to be welcomed, an examination of the physical and artistic reduction of the painting itself would seem more urgent than one of the soundness or otherwise of its virtual perception in the world at large. Perceptions and mis-perceptions can be altered. Altered pictures are forever – restoration is a one-way street of compounding injuries.
No mention of the Courtauld Gallery’s “La Loge” is made in the 2012 catalogue entry on “A Box at the Theater” but in the 1996 Clark catalogue “A Passion for Renoir” it is said that the picture features “a lavishly dressed woman, her face heavily made up…” Critics at the time of the first showing had questioned the morals of the woman as one who unabashedly presented herself for public view aiming to “attract people with her wicked charms and [the] sensuous luxury of her clothes”. In the 2008 Courtauld catalogue, John House, too, noted that some critics of the day had taken the sitter not as a woman of high fashion but as “an iconic figure from the demi-monde”. Seemingly dismissing such readings, House, added “In reality Renoir produced the painting in his studio using his brother Edmond and Nini, a model from Montmarte nicknamed ‘gueule de raie’ or ‘fish-face’ as the sitters.” As, indeed, he had, but then, as so often, the critics of the day were on to something that later champions have missed: by whatever means it had been produced, this truly was a work of dangerously seductive power.
For his part, House describes the picture as it now is, as seen here at Figs. 2, 3, 22 and 24, and not as was, as today glimpsed at Figs. 1, 21 and 23. He notes that “the viewer’s eye fluctuates between bodice and face in search for the principal focus of the composition” – when in the recorded earlier states of the picture, he could have been in no such doubt. The face had not only been more decisively modelled (Figs. 1 and 23) but the head had been separated from the bosom and bodice with both more pronounced shading and a more glittering “choker” of jewels at the upper neck (Figs. 21 and 22). While alerting us to the realities of artists’ working practices, House, by also confining himself to the picture as it now is, obliges himself not to comprehend the full extent of Renoir’s achievement. What had once been nothing less than a supreme artistic invention of female type, a face of awesome charismatic and enigmatic force that, in truth, had constitued a Mona Lisa for modern times, is now physically reduced and artistically traduced by restorers who have borne down on Renoir’s final paint film with their swabs and solvents and Lord-knows what else, leaving a picture that now generates only art historical short-change – a decorous patter of sociology and applied psychology.
…A picture that nowadays serves as grist to endlessly recycled analysis of tyrannical “engendered gazing”, posh frocks and past high bourgeois social mores – interesting enough, in their own way, but ultimately distractions all, as if to divert our gaze away from recollections of what once was. Once, it was beyond question that this woman’s face was the compositional and psychological epicentre of the picture, her enchanting bejewelled and beflowered bosom notwithstanding. Each of the face’s individual features commanded/rewarded intense scrutiny. Her mouth, sensuous, luscious, self-aware in its precisely composed invitation, had once – and in some degree until recently (see Fig. 1) – been more than a match for that seen in the National Gallery’s Rubens “Le Chapeau de Paille” (Fig. 31). The gaze of her eyes, once dark, mesmerisingly deep, supremely confident (see Fig. 23) was that of no ordinary, specific, prosaic woman; belonged to no portrait of a hired-in fish-faced model. Nor was this image mere social stereotype in some moralising, agit-prop genre tale. This was nothing less than the transcending realisation of an eternal female possibility, of one supremely aware of her own sexual magnetism and accompanying powers; of one more than content to abandon her male companion to his own distractions. An icon indeed.
What a tragedy, therefore, that this Carmen, falling among restorers, should have been reduced to Micaëla, reduced to her own still brilliantly sketched but now merely sweet, almost ingénue-like preparatory stages, losing the flash of her nostrils (- in this, too, rivalling Rubens) and the luxuriance of her sensuously elaborated coiffure. In short, being made more ordinary by ordinary people wreaking their terrible uncomprehending revenge on an extraordinary talent through their appropriation of a masterpiece crafted by one who had hymned his own private especial celebration, in paint, on a surface.
Sterling Clark died on 29 December 1956 shortly after the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute which he established and endowed and to which he had left his fabulous collection (not just of paintings but of drawings, books, prints, silver and porcelain) had opened. He might have expected that the institute’s trustees would honour the terms of his bequest and respect his wish that the unrestored works he had acquired with such assiduous ground work (and with great wealth, of course) should remain unsullied. James Ganz has reported that on Clark’s death, his widow Francine (whose important role in assembling the collection had been honoured by the inclusion of her name in the title of the institute), continued to sit on the board, “asserting her opinions on the arrangements of paintings in the galleries, looking to maintain her husband’s wishes”. Francine Clark died in April 1960.
Within three years of Francine’s death the first of what were to be two radical and utterly deranging restorations of Turner’s “Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water” was under way at the hands of a then “leading restorer”, William Suhr (see Figs 32-4). We were first alerted to the Clark Institute’s radical restorations in 2003 by the painter Edmund Rucinski who had known the collection intimately up until 1963 and who had spotted the further and compounding transformation of the Turner. On this second bite at the restoration cherry, the restorers claimed that the painting had been falling apart and that, besides, seventy-five per cent of it consisted of earlier restorers’ repaint, applied to “disguise the evidence of some unknown earlier trauma”. Only by removing most of the present paint, they insisted, could “a full understanding of what lay beneath” be achieved. That treatment, authorised by the trustees, was claimed by the interested parties to have been a “resurrection” which had created an “effectively a new picture”. In this new picture, the last traces of the second, nearer steamboat that Turner had painted battling its way towards harbour in a storm, disappeared under the waves, its filthy coal-produced smoke being converted into a water spout or perhaps steam jet (Fig. 34). Not only was this twice-over undone and redone wreck then deemed a new picture but it was also judged to be miraculously cured of all structural ailments and free to be dispatched across the Atlantic to go on tour to Manchester and Glasgow.
At the time of the UK trip, the Tate Gallery issued a press release claiming that the picture comprised “one of the stars of the show…[having] recently undergone major conservation”. Credulous British critics lapped up and regurgitated the claims. And, by coincidence, they have done so again as this Turner returned to the UK to do service at a Tate Liverpool show where works by Turner and Monet have been flatteringly permed with Cy Twombly’s solipsistic scribbles and dribbles.
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Review: Stone-washed Renoirs and the Shock of the Undone
We knew at a glance that something was amiss. On June 16th, a newspaper photograph trailed an imminent auction sale of Renoir’s “Baigneuse” of 1888. Even on the evidence of that single de-saturated newsprint reproduction (right, Fig. 1) it seemed clear that the privately owned masterpiece had gone through the picture restoration wash cycle a time (or two) too often. A comparison of Christie’s pre-sale zoom-able online photograph with historic photographs of the painting further suggested that picture conservation’s would-be beauticians had been at work with swab and solvent: Renoir’s bather had been left (Fig. 2) a paler sugar-smooth pictorially and plastically enfeebled version of her original self. (For the picture’s appearance and condition in 1944, see Figs. 7 and 9.)
Just as museum curators who organise splashy temporary exhibitions rarely broadcast the “conservation” injuries borne by works loaned from sister institutions, so auction houses, which of necessity must act primarily as agents for owners, can seem no less reticent on this fraught subject. In practice, we find that in of both of these art spheres, the “now” is often implicitly presented as the “originally-was” and “always-has-been”, thereby thwarting what would be the greatest inducement to halt needless adulterations of unique historically-rooted artefacts: a full public disclosure of “conservation” treatments and frank art-critical discussion of their material and artistic consequences. By coincidence, recent museum and saleroom activities have brought to London a slew of little-seen examples of Renoir’s oeuvre. As cases in point of Renoir’s vulnerability, we examine here treatments of his “Baigneuse” of 1888 and the Washington National Gallery’s “The Dancer” of 1874.
Renoir’s “Baigneuse” was given star billing (on a £12/18m estimate) at Christie’s June 20th Impressionist/Modern sale, for the catalogue of which it provided the cover illustration (Fig. 2). While much was made in the eight pages long catalogue entry of an impeccable and unbroken provenance through ten successive owners, not a word was said about any restorations of the painting, and although many early photographs are identified in the picture’s literature, none is reproduced. It is disclosed that this Renoir is to be included in the forthcoming “catalogue critique” of the artist’s work being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute from the Archives of François Daulte, Durand-Ruel, Venturi, Vollard and Wildenstein. (Perhaps the present condition of the picture will be discussed in that publication?)
On the night of the sale, an announcement that the picture had been withdrawn drew gasps of surprise. Artinfo reported that the vendor had accepted a private offer from an unidentified buyer for an undisclosed sum somewhere within the estimate. Trade and press eyebrows have been raised at such secretive, pre-auction sales and the withdrawal was the more confounding because expectations of a big auction house “event” had been raised by extensive (and quite stunningly fetching) pre-sale press coverage with photographs of the painting enlivened by the seemingly routine inclusion of beautiful young female staff members.
With modern paintings, the starting point for any appraisal should be the earliest known photograph. Old photographs are historic records. Historic records should never be ignored. Old photographs of pictures assembled in homes or exhibition galleries are especially precious and instructive. The photograph of Renoir’s 1905 exhibition at the Grafton Gallery (Fig. 3) testifies not only to the then generally more vivacious relative values within individual works but to the striking variety of pictorial effects and painterly means deployed within Renoir’s oeuvre.
With regard to the photographic testimony of the original appearances of individual pictures, consider first the large, near-central painting in the 1905 Grafton Gallery photograph – Renoir’s “The Dancer”. This picture, now at the National Gallery, Washington, is 138 years old but was then only 31 years old and unrestored. Then, the background was disposed in distinct but linked quadrants (top-left; top-right; bottom right; bottom left). These were not so much naturalistic renderings of an actual space as subservient pictorial devices spotlighting the central bow-tight figure of a child trainee who, through balletic discipline and artistry, had assumed a commanding Velazquez-worthy sideways-on viewer-confronting presence.
To that expressive end Renoir had welded the dramatically contra-directional lower legs into unity by a pronounced dark shadow in the vertical triangular space they bounded. That shadow sprang also from the heel of the (right) weight-supporting foot backwards and upwards in space, thereby throwing the bottom edges of the trailed skirts into relief. This dark zone in the lower-right counterbalanced another in the upper-left, which had in turn emphasised and thrown into relief the front edge of the costume, withdrawing only to leave a lighter, again relieving, tone at the dancer’s dark hair. The progressive loss through restorations of those artful dispositions (as seen in Figs. 4 & 5) and the picture’s general descent towards an inchoate, arbitrary pictorial froth that increasingly resembles the underlying condition seen today in its own infra-red imaging (see Fig. 6), is heart-breaking. Renoir had here been a sculptor before he became a sculptor, playing off forms that asserted his picture plane with others that ran sharply away from or towards it (rather as Michelangelo had famously done in his crucifixion of Haman). Degas, who spoke of Renoir’s “sharpness of tones”, had chided himself for constructing his own drawings of standing dancers from the head down instead of from the feet up. Renoir had here given a masterclass in how to project a standing figure upwards from the floor. These things artists know and appreciate.
Compendious photographic evidence suggests that restorers (frequently working myopically through head-mounted magnifying eyepieces) have consistently confounded dirt or discoloured varnish with the shiftingly elusive dark grounds used by artists to set off light-toned figures. As seen in our post of June 1st, Klimt’s portrait of Serena Lederer (which was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1980) has suffered in just such a manner. In the same post we saw also how Renoir’s deployment of a dark background zone in the upper left quadrant of background and a secondary but counter-balancing dark zone in the lower right quadrant of his “Dance in the City” had also been undone by successive restorers.
By courtesy of the 1905 photograph of the dancer we can now see that by 1944 the picture’s decisive tonal orchestration had already been subverted (see Fig. 3 and caption at Fig. 6). By the time of the picture’s appearance at the 2012 Frick show of Renoir’s full-length portraits (which was reviewed in our post of June 1st), the original dark tones in the lower right quadrant had effectively disappeared, leaving two odd arbitrarily truncated dark attachments to the right heel (Fig. 5). Cumulatively, this painting has suffered needless artistic vandalism of which no one speaks. The fact that graphite underdrawing is now visible on the painting has been mentioned but without any hint of alarm or censure.
With Renoir’s “Baigneuse” of 1888, the earliest photograph in our own records (- donations to ArtWatch of old photographs or postcards are always most gratefully received) is that published in 1944 when the painting was 56 years old, as seen here in greyscale at Fig. 7 (left) and at Fig. 9. Six years later, by 1950, the painting had been radically transformed, as seen at Fig. 7 (right, in greyscale) and Fig. 8 (left, in colour). The differences that emerged between 1944 and 1950 were compounded by further changes between the picture’s 1950 state (seen in colour at Fig. 8, left) and its 2012 state (seen in colour at Fig. 8, right). However many times and by whomever this painting might have been “restored”, it is clear that the resulting interventions have profoundly altered its constructional and pictorial rationales. The total extent of the alterations that occurred between 1944 and 2012 are examined right in greyscale details in Figs. 11-18. The differences between the 1950 and 2012 states are examined in colour details at Figs. 19, 20 and 21.
By 1888 Renoir had visited Algiers and Italy, come to admire Cezanne as well as Delacroix, discovered Italian painting and read Cennino Cennini’s Treatise on Painting. He had just completed an intense series of classically inspired, Ingresque female nudes, culminating in that declared trial for decorative painting, the Philadelphia Museum’s great “Bathers” of 1887, by which date he held the nude to be one of the most “essential forms of art”.
Compared with Fantin-Latour’s palpable but fluidly allegorical figure at Fig. 10, Renoir’s “Baigneuse” has, in its 1944 state, a markedly more stolid, out-of-Courbet corporeality. For all its spirited brushwork and sparkling colour, plastically, it constitutes an essay in composure, stability and parallelism. The torso seemingly rests on its own base of compressed and spreading buttocks and thighs. The thighs, knees and lower legs are held together in a manner more primly archaic (Egyptian) than classical. Movement is confined to the bather’s right hand which dries the left side of the waist. This action has enlivening consequences. The upper torso is pulled round by the right arm and the head is turned leftwards and downwards as if to contemplate the drying action of the towel. The left arm is required to be held aloft to free the left side of the figure, and, flexing at the elbow as the left hand draws across the face, it first echoes the thighs but then curls gracefully, weightlessly away in space.
What, then, explains the differences between the picture’s previous and its present condition? In such cases it is always possible to play the “Sistine Chapel Ceiling Restoration Defence” and claim that in 1944 the then 56 years old picture was very dirty and that the removal of this dirt has liberated the forms and the colours of the painting to a hitherto unsuspected degree. But the pattern of relationships that is visible, even under dirt, should not change character during a cleaning. Rather, it should emerge enhanced, with the lights lighter and the darks darker – and all individual values holding their previous positions. This has not happened – the picture has got progressively lighter with successive cleanings instead of returning to its previously cleaned state. If it really had been left by Renoir in today’s state, how could the previous but now lost artistically constructive values ever have arisen? If left untouched for the next 56 years, would anyone expect the painting to return to its 1944 appearance with the stripes on the towel and the shading of the fingers regaining strength? Would a general shading and enhancement of forms once more helpfully tuck the left hand behind the head? How might dirt have drawn more clearly and repositioned the left shoulder? How might it have more emphatically shaded the right, distant side of the face?
If we consider the difference between the 1950 and 2012 colour plates (shown at Figs. 8, 19, 20 & 21), what might account for the loss of orange coloured modelling in the left cheek, and of individual brushstrokes depicting the hair? Is it possible to claim on the evidence of these photographs that there has been a build-up of dirt on the picture over the last 62 years?
When examining the bather’s face in close-up today, as shown at Fig. 21, can we have any confidence that the paint presently surviving in that section is just as it was when left by Renoir in 1888? What kind of brush or paint might he have used that would have resulted in the present fragmentary, seemingly abraded, scattering of orange paint that lies over the blue background between the hand, the face and the shoulder?
In the next post we examine the conservation fate of more than a score of Renoirs that have been loaned from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts to the Royal Academy. We shall see how Sterling Clark learned the hard way not to trust art experts on matters of condition in paintings when, having been assured that Domenico Ghirlandaio’s “Portrait of a Lady” had never been repainted, he bought it, only to discover, very shortly afterwards, a postcard of the painting showing it in an earlier and quite different state.
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Review: Renoir at the Frick – The Curatorial and Conservational Photographic Blind Spots
The Frick Collection’s recent temporary exhibition “Renoir ~ Impressionism and Full-length Painting” contained ten pictures and took ten years to assemble. It was organised by the deputy director, Colin Bailey, to showcase the The Promenade, the museum’s sole and “somewhat overlooked” Renoir – “overlooked” because Henry Clay Frick’s entrenched prohibition against loans had prevented the picture from travelling to major Renoir shows such as the 1997-78 “Renoir Portraits” exhibition which Bailey had organised for the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, The Art Institute of Chicago and The Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. If the Promenade could not join the international party then the party might come to the Frick.
For this celebration of a single work nine major pictures were borrowed from seven museums and Bailey, a distinguished scholar of French art, produced a book/catalogue that contains much illuminating material on contemporary costume and fashionable mores. As delightful as the show itself ought to have been, the experience proved dispiriting and alarming. Partly, this was because such temporary compilations of dream combinations always come with downsides and a common glaring omission. In this case, for several months a gallery-full of important Frick pictures were bumped from view as important works from other, also temporarily depleted, museums were put at risk. The Musée d’Orsay, for example, sent both its Dance in the City, which had been transferred from its original canvas and relined (see Figs. 10-13 and below), and its Dance in the Country, across the Atlantic. The National Gallery (London) sent its already travel-damaged The Umbrellas, and did so at a time when it had lent its brittle, fragile, shotgun-blasted, “never-to-travel” Leonardo Cartoon to the Louvre. The Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, lent its fire-damaged Madame Henriot “en travesti” (The Page)…and so forth.
The omission that is common to all borrowed compilations was the failure – perhaps for reasons of institutional politesse – to take the opportunity to assess the relative physical conditions of the variously treated and restored cross-section of pictures from within an oeuvre or, in this case, from a specific moment within an oeuvre – “the decade of Impressionism”. This commonly encountered lacuna was the more apparent because Bailey himself discusses conservation matters rather more than most. He does so, however, as a seemingly grateful recipient/beneficiary of museum restoration departments’ technical largesse and their routinely delivered “discoveries”. With his prefatory expression of deep gratitude to an international slew of conservators for “their participation in undertaking technical examination on the paintings in their charge and for allowing me to publish their findings in this catalogue” we knew precisely what critical appraisals not to expect.
Strictly speaking it would not be necessary to call for comparative assessments on such occasions if museums were all, as a matter of course, completely frank about the restoration-injured conditions of individual works. By way of an example of what might be discussed at a time when recollection of the show is still fresh and when armed with Bailey’s book/catalogue, which is as intensively researched and handsomely illustrated as might ever be expected, we consider here the technical history, in so far as it has been disclosed, of just one of the nine loaned pictures – Renoir’s beautiful invention of arrested intimacy-in-movement, his Dance in the City.
The obvious starting point for any appraisal of a picture’s successive states should be the earliest photographic record of the work. With Renoir we enjoy an immense if not comprehensive photographic record. We even have film footage of him painting and sculpting. We have contemporary or near-contemporary photographs that show his paintings in the context of close proximity to other paintings and in a common light (Fig. 1). When the testimony of early photographs differs markedly from presently photographed states (as so often is the case with modern masters – see Figs. 3-7), then, self-evidently, there is an issue crying to be addressed.
When, for example, we compare the very different states of Renoir’s Dance in the City, as seen in Figs. 3 & 4, despite making allowances for photographic variations (such as the great discrepancies of size between the earlier and later images) and being mindful of Bailey’s own thanks to the photographer Michael Bodycomb for having “improved the quality of almost every image”), it is clear that the painting today is not the work that it once was; that its values and relationships have changed. Consider the floor on which the dancers perform: then, it was more varied in its tones; today it is more equal. Then, the floor to the right of the ball gown was darker than the floor to the left of the couple. That darkness served to emphasize the sweeping profile at the back of the trailing gown. Reading downwards from the waist, the shape of two convex masses of material formerly made a leisurely elegant descent towards the train. Today, that “materially” expressive clarity of design in the lower of the two draped forms has been quite disrupted, if not lost, as the now lighter tone of the floor merges with the now diminished shaded tints of the gown (see Figs. 3, 4 & 11).
For all of Bailey’s admirably close (and expertly advised) attentiveness to the dress-making “mechanics” of the gown – “…The skirt is draped in puffed folds (en bouillonée) with a tier of drapery in the front and two pleated flounces at the bottom. The long train is is draped and pleated to form poufs in the back, and a petticoat can be glimpsed beneath it” – he misses the weakened and possibly redrawn profile. Bailey well describes Renoir’s preoccupation with costume. As the son of a tailor and a seamstress, how could that artist have been unaware of or indifferent to the expressive “cut” and sweep of a costume on a swirling, waltzing figure? Previously, the costume of the male dancer was more various in its tones. Today it reads as a uniform black appendage to the female dancer. Previously there had been no hint of the present overly-assertive, sharpened and darkened treatment of the coat tails which pictorially are now as disruptively emphatic as the head of a claw hammer.
For Bailey, the now lighter toned, more equal floor is “immaculate”. To a charlady that might well seem gratifyingly the case, but Renoir, as Bailey acknowledges, fretted greatly about establishing integrated relationships of figures and backgrounds. As Renoir himself put it: “I just struggle with my figures until they are a harmonious unity with their landscape background, and I want people to feel that neither the setting nor the figures are dull and lifeless.” (“Renoir by Renoir”, N.Y., 1990, p. 50). “Harmonious” sometimes seems to be an elusive concept to non-artists. It is not synonymous with “more-alike”. Rather, it describes the uniting through an artistically forged equilibrium of otherwise potentially disparate, disjunctive elements. We constantly see in artists’ preliminary, intimate sketches how their very first thoughts attempt to anticipate and resolve the requirements of such pictorial equilibriums – see Figs. 8 & 9.
Rendering Renoir’s dance floor more homogeneous has had a spatially flattening and pictorially deadening effect. Rendering it both generally lighter and more equal has contributed to the unfortunate effect of detaching the couple from their swirling space and leaving them as isolated and self-contained as a pressed flower in a book. Indication of the painter’s pictorially melding preoccupation is unmissable in the small oil sketch at Fig. 9 that Renoir made for another of his dance paintings. Compared with the earlier state of Dance in the City, the present one resembles an artificially sharpened photograph.
With apparent injuries we must always look for causes and look for them behind as much as within official accounts. As mentioned, and as Bailey euphemises, this picture has “had a complicated structural history”. That is, it has been both transferred and relined. Both operations are highly dangerous. When the paint film was detached from (its presumably original) canvas, the restorers took the opportunity to photograph the painting from the back of the paint, capturing the image in reverse. This image is excitedly presented as having afforded “a rare glimpse into Renoir’s initial preparations…we can see the lines demarcating the back and the train of the womans dress” (but see comments and photograph at Fig. 10). In the same vein, an X-radiograph “shows how enegetically Renoir laid out both his figures and the background elements”. Bailey discusses an infrared reflectogram (Fig. 11) and acknowledges that these “technical” images were made by the Laboratoire du Louvre, C2RMF. Our colleague in ARIPA, Michel Favre Felix, advises that a certain number of paintings coming from the Louvre or from “l’Orangerie”, were “more or less restored” in 1986 on entering the Musée d’Orsay. Bailey confirms that the picture entered the Louvre in 1979 and was transferred to the the Musée d’Orsay in 1986 but offers no details on any restorations of the picture. The pronounced differences in the picture that are evident in Figs. 4 and 13 would however suggest that a restoration took place at some point after 1986.
Needless to say, Renoir painted from the bottom up with overlaid patches of paint and his final, most considered statements therefore formed the upper visible surface of the original paint film. That original, considered and final surface (as was best seen and recorded in the earlier photograph at fig. 2), is no longer to be found in current photographs or in the flesh. Whatever interest penetrative imaging might have, it is secondary in importance to the actual appearance of pictures to the human eye. The current escalating vogue for “technical” imaging that probes beneath the surfaces of pictures serves to divert attention from destructive restoration actions on pictures’ critically important upper surfaces. If the present international museums merry-go-round of borrowings makes the need to address the condition of paintings impolitic, then that is a further compelling reason for curtailing it.
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