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: Institute Acquires Renoir's San Marco: A Sparkling Souvenir of the Italian Journey


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Renoir's sparkling view of San Marco and its famous square, the latest addition to the Institute's collection of modern French painting, is being introduced to members this weekend. Representing one of the most unusual and appealing of Renoir's works in the period that marked the climax of his achievement as an Impressionist, the picture rounds out and gives substance to the story of nineteenth-century French painting in the Institute. It is not widely known in this country, having been for many years in the Neue Staats-Gallerie in Munich. Originally in the collection of R. de Bonnières, it was acquired by the great German curator and Impressionist critic, von Tschudi, who sold it to the Munich museum with the von Tschudi collection in 1912. Just before the last war it was purged from the Neue Staats-Gallerie in the Nazi drive on what Hitler conceived to be degenerate art. It was thereafter acquired by an American collector who brought it to this country and from whom the Institute acquired it through the John R. Van Derlip Fund. In passing, it is gratifying to contemplate the pleasure Mr. Van Derlip would have derived from this painting. If France is the second country of many people throughout the world, Italy was second home to Mr. Van Derlip. He knew it thoroughly and loved it dearly, and this exquisite, dreamy Renoir would have enchanted him.San Marco is a dazzling example of Renoir's way with light and color. The cathedral shimmers like a mass of jewels at the end of the great square, its fantastic domes rising palely into the soft and liquid blue of the Venetian sky. The whole incredible structure seems to float in the moist, golden light, and it is only the shaft of the Campanile, anchoring it to the earth at the right, which reminds the spectator that this effect is an illusion, a part of the wizardry of Renoir at the height of his power as an Impressionist. The summarily sketched figures-patches of blue, rose, and aubergine-and the staccato blue forms of the pigeons swirling about their feet introduce, against the quivering façade of the cathedral, a contrapuntal movement that lends an air of great animation to the scene. Suddenly one finds oneself transported to the famous piazza and hears the familiar flat hum of pigeon's wings and the soft rush of air as the birds swoop down on the pavement. Here, as in so many others of the great works created during the seventies and early eighties, Renoir achieves what he considered to be one of the chief aims of his painting: the power to sweep the spectator into his own strongly flowing current of sensation and make their experience one. He has captured, to a degree unparalleled by any but Turner, the unique charm of Venice, its color, its light, and the same peculiar, haunting, dusty quality that one comes upon, now and then, in a bottle of old wine.Renoir painted San Marco in 1881, when he had saved enough money to do some of the traveling he had always hoped to do. It represents an unusual subject for Renoir, for he did not often make architecture the main element of a painting. He was essentially a painter of figures and, above all, of women. In general, perhaps, he found architecture too formal as art to stir his emotions. That his senses and his love for beauty were aroused by Saint Mark's is, however, obvious. He gave to this picture the same luminous quality, first introduced in Le Pont Neuf of 1872 in the Marshall Field Collection, that is inseparable from his painting of women, and, indeed, of all the gay and carefree pictures done between 1872 and 1882.There are several other views of Venice done at this time, among them one that is especially interesting in connection with the Institute's San Marco. It is a view of Venice, very Turneresque in some passages, in the collection of Mrs. Bennett Crocker of New York. Here the cathedral is seen looming out of the mist like a phantom beyond the dancing waters on the approach to the Piazzetta. The sharp accents of the gondolas and the slender spires of the ships clustered at the right emphasize the ghostly form of the famous church, which assumes, in the soft, damp air, a secretive and disturbing character. This painting presents a less familiar, but no less exact, aspect of Venice than that captured in San Marco. Under overcast skies the melancholy side of its personality is open to none of the doubt which occasionally assails the casual visitor on a bright and glistening day. And yet this aspect is never wholly absent. One ignores it, or pushes it away, but it drifts like a shadow along the canals. That Renoir perceived it, however fleetingly, is indicative of the impact Venice had upon him. It is remarkable in this instance because any suggestion of melancholy is almost totally absent in his work. Even in the early days, Renoir maintained his cheerful attitude toward life and his work.Only once did he exhibit profound dissatisfaction with his painting. This was after his return from Italy, when he declared that he had reached the end of Impressionism. Early in 1881 Renoir had gone to Algiers, were he was fascinated and stimulated, as Delacroix was before him, by the blazing light and color he saw wherever his eye turned. His delight in the intoxicating life of this ancient land was expressed in several pictures, of which L'Algérienne in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and The Stairway, Algiers, in the Wildenstein Collection are admirable examples. Later in the year Renoir went to Italy, stopping in Naples, Rome, Florence, and Venice, where he painted San Marco. This trip gave him his first opportunity to study the Italian masters in their own land, and he was deeply impressed by what he saw. In the light of his new knowledge of early Italian painting he began to survey his own accomplishments; he appears to have found them of little account. He lingered in Italy, spending much time in a study of the Pompeian frescoes in Naples and Raphael's frescoes in Rome. While in the south, he secured a sitting from Wagner, who had just finished Parsifal. The famous composer granted him only some twenty minutes but they sufficed for an interesting impressionistic portrait of the celebrated German musician whose compositions were then the subject of endless debate among the artist's of Renoir's circle in Paris. Soon after this meeting he returned to France and a change of style.Renoir's most lasting impression of Italy was his discovery of the Raphael frescoes in Rome, which filled him with mingled admiration and discontent. Their majesty of form and design moved him profoundly, instilling in him a longing to create similar compositions. He had early taken issue with the Impressionists over their lack of interest in form and drawing, and had joined Degas in open admiration for the reason and purity of Ingres. This did not diminish his adoration for Delacroix, however, and since he was primarily a colorist Renoir had continued to stress color and light in his paintings. When he came back from Italy, with the memory of Raphael fresh in his mind, he appears to have undergone a period of doubt. In 1883 he decided to abandon Impressionism, and entered what is generally known as the Ingres period. Renoir himself called it his sour period; it could just as well be called dry. This change of direction was perhaps partly impelled by the realization that some of his contemporaries, among them Gauguin, had remarked that he did not know how to draw. The chief reason, however, was undoubtedly his new awareness of Raphael's genius and a consequent return to the early-and never relinquished-veneration for Ingres. In his attempt to approximate their achievement, Renoir became more conscious of his drawing, using a meticulous line and including every detail in figures and foliage. He subdued his painting surface by using dried colors, thus flattening his entire composition.The Institute's small canvas of Girls Playing Battledore and Shuttlecock, painted in 1886, is perhaps the most extreme, and certainly one of the most illuminating, examples of a style that was to prove an aberration. Nevertheless, it anticipates and achievement Renoir was to reach when he decided to be himself again. The landscape in this picture retains much of the freedom that was one of Renoir's greatest contributions to Impressionist painting, but the figures are stiff and quaint and extraordinarily wooden for Renoir. Three other pictures in this style, painted in 1885 and 1886, are Girls Seated Beside a Brook, in the collection of Dr. and Mrs. Harry Bakwin, New York; Lady in a Yellow Hat, in the collection of Mrs. Charles Suydam Cutting, New York; and Madame Renoir and Her Son Pierre, in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Hunt Henderson, New Orleans. All betray the same careful delineation of the figures, an overall flatness of color and treatment, and an attempt, which met with varying degrees of success, to unite figures and landscape. The most ambitious and successful work in this vein is The Bathers in the Tyson Collection, a magnificent blond composition in a more fluid style than that of its predecessors. The inspiration for this painting was derived from one of the Girardon reliefs at Versailles, and Renoir made a handsome work of it.Renoir soon realized that he was going against his own nature in attempting to do something for which he was not temperamentally suited. He found it absurd that he should be trying to paint oil paintings without oil, and gave up the short-lived attempt to follow too rigidly the style and designs of the Old Masters. He had no need to lean heavily upon the great of the past. He was great in his own right, achieving, through his sensuous love for color and for life, a personal style that is a happy blend of tradition and innovation. In the years that succeeded the Ingres period, his painting became easier and more fluid. A miraculous union of figures and landscape seems to have occurred effortlessly, with a resultant delicacy and airiness that is completely ravishing.This ease, this delight in color and light and the earth itself, and his joy in painting pretty women, are the elements which characterize Renoir's painting above all others. His enjoyment of the good things of life is frankly expressed, yet there is a detachment, a naturalness in his manner of expression that removes his painting far from the suggestive creations of Boucher, who was his first love. Fundamentally, he is closer to Watteau, whose natural charm is clearly echoed in many of his greatest paintings. Renoir was, despite his adherence to a group which wished to overthrow tradition, a traditionalist. He drew upon the inspiration of the past for his own work, and when someone once asked him where one could learn to paint he replied, “In a museum.” It was in the Louvre that Renoir became acquainted with Titian, Rubens, Velasquez, Watteau, and other great painters of the past. From Rubens and Velasquez he learned the importance of black in painting. He declared that it was the supreme color and used it dramatically in his own work, notably in La Loge, in the Courtauld Collection in London, and in the stunning portrait of Madame Charpentier and her Children, now in he Metropolitan Museum of Art. The former was painted in 1874, the latter in 1878. It was the Charpentier portrait which launched Renoir on the road to success. Welcomed to the Charpentier house by its renowned mistress, he met many painters and writers who helped to further his career. It was at this time also, during the seventies, that Renoir's powers as a colorist and painter of light became fully apparent. Such pictures as The Moulin de la Galette, in the Louvre, and the Scene at the Milliner's, in the Fogg Museum of Art, display the joy, the luminosity, and the brilliance which were to reach their climax in the Luncheon of the Boating Party, now in the Phillips Memorial Gallery. This great canvas was painted in the same year as the Institute's San Marco, 1881.It is of pictures like this that one thinks first in thinking of Renoir, scenes which parallel, in their frank delight in nature and the pleasures of life, the canvases of the Old Masters depicting the gods as they disport themselves in paradise. But Renoir's gods and goddesses are his companions and friends; artists and midinettes who make a heavenly holiday of a Sunday on the Seine or a rustic ball in the country. The paradise is not some imagined land of bliss, but the French countryside, with its gardens drifted with flowers, its sparkling rivers, its fragrant, luxuriant trees, and over and around it all a dazzling, shimmering light that is almost too beautiful to be borne. In such works Renoir is seen to be the greatest of the Impressionists. And this is partly because he maintained his own individuality. He was tempted by Delacroix, influenced by Monet and Pissarro, but his awareness of tradition and his readiness to draw on his great predecessors for inspiration gave his work a substance and a meaning lacking in that of some of his contemporaries. He had the courage to look back as well as forward. He perceived that Impressionism was, in a sense, a new starting point and not a style sufficient in itself. Like Degas, he learned that it was better to finish his work in the studio where he would not be distracted by transient effects of light, and like Cézanne he came to the knowledge that painting based only on light becomes insipid and boring. His own triumphant symphonies in color gain structure because he did not confine himself to the tenets of any school. He is an integral part of the great tradition of European painting.The Institute's acquisition of San Marco is therefore a particularly happy one, for while it is not a typical Renoir as far as subject goes, it is altogether characteristic of his finest work in color, in luminosity, in spirit. Renoir painted San Marco as he would have painted a pretty woman, because he found it irresistible. And in his painting of it he left an unforgettable impression of the peculiar fascination of St. Mark's.Referenced Works of ArtFrontispiece. San Marco by Pierre August Renoir, French, 1841-1919.
Detail. John R. Van Derlip Fund.
  1. San Marco. This luminous impression of the famous cathedral was painted by Renoir in 1881 during a voyage to Italy.
  2. Girls Playing Battledore and Shuttlecock. Renoir painted this picture in 1886 when he was preoccupied with drawing.
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Source: "Institute Acquires Renoir's San Marco: A Sparkling Souvenir of the Italian Journey," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 41, no. 14 (April, 1952): 70-75.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009