'Renoir In The 20th Century': A Master's Last Works "I am just learning how to paint," said Pierre-Auguste Renoir in 1913 — six years before he died. The French master painted right up to the end, even though he suffered from crippling rheumatoid arthritis. Works made by Renoir in the last three decades of his life are on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
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'Renoir In The 20th Century': A Master's Last Works

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'Renoir In The 20th Century': A Master's Last Works

'Renoir In The 20th Century': A Master's Last Works

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And we turn, now, to nudes, landscapes, more nudes, girls at a piano, children with their nannies - all by a French painter, Renoir. They're on review, right now, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art - it's work from the last three decades of his life. Renoir was 78, when he died in 1919, and as NPRs special correspondent Susan Stamberg tells us, he kept painting right to the end.

SUSAN STAMBERG: In 1913, six years before his death, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, said, I am just learning how to paint. By then he had repudiated the impressionism he had helped create in the 1860s, a revolution of quick brush strokes, fleeting images of everyday good times. Instead, French curator Sylvie Patry says, he gone back to basics established centuries earlier by Titian and Rubens.

Ms. SYLVIE PATRY (Curator, Musee dOrsay): You can just feel how Renoir mastered the use of color, the brush strokes, even if he was a sick man.

STAMBERG: Rheumatoid arthritis. There's a flickering 1915 black and white film that shows Renoir painting, despite his afflictions.

Ms. PATRY: His hands are tragic to look at. They look like the stumps of very, very old trees. You can barely see his fingers because they are so curled in on themselves.

STAMBERG: Fabric is tied across Renoir's palms, to protect his skin. In the newsreel footage, he clamps a paintbrush between the thumb and crippled fist of his right hand.

Ms. PATRY: He leans into the canvas. He is talking and painting. Very lively, he is busy talking and his eyes are piercing, piercing - god, thats wonderful.

STAMBERG: LA County Museum Director Michael Govan is also touched by the moving images.

Mr. MICHAEL GOVAN (LA County Museum Director): Youre seeing Renoir painting on film. How amusing is that to be thinking of an artist you think is long gone and there he is in the film.

STAMBERG: Gaunt, emaciated, in a wheelchair; surely in constant pain - making art. Work thats different, according to the LACMA director, even though they do look awfully familiar - rosy-colored nudes, more rosy nudes.

Mr. GOVAN: You dont see a different kind of focus for searching for some form thats really timeless and monumental, as opposed to fleeting and impressionistic. I actually think there is a difference in the choice of subject matter and solidity of space and form.

STAMBERG: But doesnt it feel Saccharin, to you, after a while?

Mr. GOVAN: Never, never, never.

STAMBERG: This is curator, Joseph Rishel, of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Renoir show will travel there in the summer. Rishel admires Renoirs focus in this late work.

Mr. JOSEPH RISHEL (Curator, Philadelphia Museum of Art): It's about beauty and a figure in space, and a kind of stability.

STAMBERG: In these last decades, Renoir's women are beautiful with their lush, voluptuous figures. LACMA curator, Claudia Einecke, says he looked for models whose pearly skin took the light - his phrase.

Ms. CLAUDIA EINECKE (LACMA curator): It wasn't just the body type or the form, the shape. It was also the beauty of the skin and flesh itself.

STAMBERG: I like that they're zaftig.

Mr. EINECKE: I do too.

STAMBERG: One buxom beauty is Gabrielle Renard, the family's longtime and beloved nanny, and the masters model and muse. He painted her hundreds of times. In one image, from 1911, Gabrielle holds a pink rose to her ear.

Ms. PATRY: We know by photographs that the roses were paper.

STAMBERG: Sylvie Patry, of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, where the show originated. Gabrielle's skin is pearly-smooth, her breasts almost gleam. Renoirs brush gets busier around her negligee, painted in lively gray-whites. A similar contrast in his picture of the French Poet, Alice Valliere Merzbach, she is fully clothed and thats a story. Alice wanted the famous Monsieur Renoir to paint her portrait, Monsieur wasn't interested. He didn't know her -by then, 1913, he was painting his children or friends or Gabrielle - he didn't need the money, but Alice was persistent.

Ms. PATRY: She came back, and she had a very beautiful white satin dress. And when Renoir saw the dress, he was very enthusiastic. And then he made his decision when he saw the dress because he told her that it was such a long time he didnt have a chance to paint such beautiful fabric.

STAMBERG: So Renoir lavished his attention on the gown. By contrast, Alice's face looks quickly done, dark hair, eyebrows, pretty pink cheeks. Another Renoir face. His women, children, even his men look very much alike. In fact, one of the masters three sons, whom he painted over and over again, especially in his later years, once made that point.

Ms. PATRY: Jean Renoir said when I look at all Renoirs paintings, everybody is brother and sister. We are all Renoir's children in the paintings.

STAMBERG: Many of those children, captured in oil paints with those gnarled, arthritic hands, are on view now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The exhibition is called Renoir in the 20th Century.

In California, Im Susan Stamberg.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And you can see a photo of Renoir painting with his gnarled fingers and that portrait of a semi nude with a pink rose at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep.

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