February 19, 2012

"Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting" at The Frick

 One of my very favorite places in the City of New York is the small but sumptuous Frick Collection on Fifth Avenue at 70th Street.  Housed in the former mansion of industrial magnate Henry Clay Frick, the museum boasts an unparalleled collection of European paintings and sculpture, decorations and furniture displayed almost as it was when Mr. Frick and his family were in residence.

Mr. Frick was blessed with both good taste and the wherewithal to indulge it.  His home became a showplace of masterpieces by Constable, Fragonard, della Francesca, Gainsborough, El Greco, Hals, Rembrandt, Turner, Van Dyck, Vermeer, Whistler and many others.  I have been visiting The Frick for nearly thirty years and am happy to say that the experience has been consistently wonderful.  I look forward to seeing the fanciful Boucher Room with its series of paintings of The Arts and Sciences adorning the walls, I love the masculine oak paneled Living Hall with the marvelous Bellini oil of "St Francis in the Desert" and Holbein's portraits of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, and I am delighted with the brand new Portico Gallery, the first new gallery in 35 years created quite simply and effectively by enclosing the garden portico with glass and presto - a beautiful venue for displaying sculpture and porcelain while retaining the original spirit of the architecture.

While tradition and constancy are hallmarks of The Frick, the institution is by no means a dinosaur!  The directors know that they have to bring patrons back for repeat visits and to this end from time to time they mount special exhibitions relating to the permanent collection.  Often these shows are presented on the lower level in two little galleries suitable for smaller format works.  But for a limited time and for a very special reason, this winter's limited engagement is installed in the elegant East Gallery.  In an exhibit five years in the making, The Frick, in collaboration with some very important national and international institutions, presents "Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting" a look at the French painter Pierre Auguste Renoir's commitment to the large-scale format.

Inspired by "The Promenade", purchased by Henry Clay Frick in 1914 and part of the museum's permanent collection, the curators assembled nine paintings all in the vertical, full length format that Renoir explored from the mid-1870's to mid-1880's, the period in which Impressionism really began to bloom.  The result is a blockbuster exhibition!  To stand in the center of that beautiful gallery literally surrounded by the best of the best - nine big, bold and beautiful paintings by a master of the aesthetic is stunning to say the least.

It was interesting to read that Renoir had apprenticed with a manufacturer of blinds for export to missionary churches and painted full length images of the Madonna and Child in imitation of stained glass windows.  This, coupled with his early experience painting murals on walls of cafés, gave him an excellent grounding in grand scale canvas'.  Add to that proficiency his keen observation of fashion and social mores and you have life-size portrayals that capture much more than initially meets the eye.  For instance, the clothing worn by each of the three men in the "Dancing Couples" trilogy, very clearly depicts his position in society, and the fact that in "Dance at Bougival" neither the man nor the woman is wearing gloves and actually touching hands is a scandal indeed!

I thoroughly enjoyed this concise but impactive exhibition and judging by the line of people queued up to get in to the museum, I am not alone!  "Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting" is on view until May 13th.

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