A Painter’s Response to the Renoir-Haters Protest

A group of Renoir “haters” protested in front of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts the other day.[1] The general thrust of the protest it seems was, simply, that “Renoir Sucks At Painting.” There are many paintings that could serve to refute the charge. Take “The Gust of Wind,” a simple landscape painted early in Renoir’s career. Value and color relationships are spot on. There is a wholeness, a harmony, a wonderful sensitivity to atmosphere. The brushwork is vigorous, fresh, and authoritative. But here is the key thing: Renoir was painting this when artists such as Meissonier (the painter of slick – or “licked” according to certain Impressionists – propaganda pieces) were winning medals by the cart load. He, Renoir, was just 28; and yet he had the capacity, the courage really, to allow us to see and feel how nature was touching him. He must have been intensely alive.

Let’s hold that thought – about being intensely alive. We all know that good painting is not just about technical virtuosity. I believe that good paintings are those that genuinely move people in unexpected ways and this, in turn, requires that the painter be moved in ways that most people are not, that liberate us in some way. It is in this realm of painting, of feeling intensely alive, that I think Renoir may have something to each us. First, a slight detour is in order

Are you familiar with George Carlin, the comedian? Well, by about the year 2000 he was a social critic –savagely so, I would say, and at least to me, very funny. If you don’t know him, you’ll have to google him, but trust me, he wasn’t what you would call “mainstream.” However, when he was in his late 20s (about the same age as the Renoir above), he had hit the big time. He was doing the late shows, first Jack Paar and then Johnny Carson just as those shows were becoming big in the 50s and 60s. And when he hit the big time, George Carlin was, what we might call, “really straight.” In other words, he hadn’t found himself yet. Eventually he made the decision to dump the “success” that he had achieved because the real success would be (and I use this phrase all the time, I know!) for him to become who he was most. Okay, back to Renoir and company.

By the time Renoir was 28, he had exhibited in 4 Salon exhibitions. What Parisian artist wouldn’t kill to be at that level in 1869? But Renoir and the other “intransigents,” while they could have focused strictly on making it within the institutions they had inherited, painted what Salon jurors were looking for, and served the interests of the powerful, they didn’t. They threw away their careers so that they could find, not medals, fame, and wealth, but fulfillment in feeling larger, more powerful, more beautiful (to paraphrase Emma Goldman) in becoming who they were most. That’s painting!

Now, allow me to frame this more tightly. As anyone today trying to make a living as a painter, I investigate various “opportunities,” and marketing gambits. Oh my god, they are so depressing. For example: one I was looking at just today uses language like “make your dreams come true…learn, grow, and improve….” Not bad, I’m thinking. I could go for that. Then they spell out what “learn, grow, and improve” means to them: you will be able to “secure your first major client contract, convert more visitors into sales on your website, launch your next product and make 5 times as much revenue as you did in the previous quarter….” But wait, there’s more: “Go on a round the world trip while running your business.” That’s the freaking Jack Parr show! I don’t want it. I want to be who I am most as a painter. I’m not interested in empire building, even if I can go on a world trip while my elves crank out the product.

Okay, now here’s where Renoir can teach us something: he confronted the same dilemma we all face and Renoir and his group came up with a solution, the only group of artists in the history of the world to do so. They took control over their process (of making paintings) away from the art elites of their day and they largely took control of the distribution of their work as well. They created a way of painting and exhibiting that enabled them to become completely independent. They were free, and poor for a time, but they turned the tables on those above them. They got control of the goose that laid the golden egg. Now, they were painters with a capital P! Sigh! This amazing historical achievement was not to last.

Fast Forward: Artists in the Age of Finance Capital

“There’s been a seismic shift in the past 10 to 15 years,” notes Tom Eccles, executive director of the curatorial studies program at Bard College. “Art is seen today as an equal asset class to stocks, boats, houses and jewelry, and people don’t want to give their assets away.”[2] Of course they don’t, not in a world where American corporations sit on $1.4 trillion dollars in cash and where the main source of profit in the American economy is asset price inflation.[3] In fact, the new “masters of the universe” are art masters, buying (and buying control over) and manipulating every aspect of an unregulated system of art production, marketing, and distribution:

Hedge-fund managers, who play a vital but disruptive role in the broader financial markets, are increasingly throwing their weight around the art market: They are paying record sums to drive up values for their favorite artists, dumping artists who don’t pay off and offsetting their heavy wagers on untested contemporary art by buying the reliable antiquity or two. Aggressive, efficient and armed with up-to-the-minute market intelligence supplied by well-paid art advisers, these collectors are shaking up the way business gets done in the genteel art world…. Nearly all are applying their day-job tactics to their art shopping, dealers say.[4]

So welcome to 2015. This is the institutional setting that we painters inherit. This is where we are. We could go the Jack Paar route: we could lock into the logic of the entrepreneur, focus on the latest ways of self-promotion, and, to paraphrase Robert Hughes, chase after external rewards with the voracious single-mindedness of a feeding bluefish. But then painting would be reduced largely to a process of production. More and more of our energy would be spent in self-promotion. We would start thinking about things like productivity. And our self-worth would be linked to all the external measures – sales, expert endorsements, prized exhibitions, and all the rest. Given that only a few are going to be anointed as “blue chip,” our sense of self will sink to whatever marketing level we reach. And we will believe that it is all legitimate. It’s just. It’s how the world works. How dreadful is that?

Let’s go back to what a real painter can teach us. Let’s go back to the disobedience of Renoir and the members of his group who proudly stated, quite explicitly actually, “I know my self-worth.” Of course they were concerned about sales. They thought about it all the time, but they refused to be defined in terms of some larger power system, some set of economic interests not their own. Renoir and company taught that if you really want to be a painter you need to have the freedom to be self-defining. To be honest, I really don’t have energy to get that big client contract. I know that if I want to grow as a painter I have to really buckle down and keep right in front of my mind, night and day, the idea that my first need is to enjoy the exercise of my own power for its own sake. I can’t be the person who is consumed by trying to get 5 times more sales this quarter than last. I’d rather dig ditches. Sorry! I have all I can do to understand and then practice what Baudelaire urged Renoir to value, “the presentness of the present.” I don’t want a world trip while the elves crank out – whatever. I want to stand on the shores of Lake Como and try to see beyond those obvious colors again. I want to stand before nature, with brush in hand “vibrating with nature” as Cèzanne did, trying to do the impossible as Monet did, or as Mallarmè counseled Renoir and Morisot to do, and that is to get a thrill by embracing “the untouched alive now.”[5]

If Renoir sucked at painting, he at least found fulfillment in a process where both visual sensation and feeling came together. He once recalled, apparently fondly, his slow, somewhat painful process of becoming who he was most as “a gentle madness.” I suspect that the discovery of his ability to create himself through the expressive activity of painting was, for him, fulfilling. I also think that it is precisely that fulfillment that very well may be the measure of what it means to be a free human being.

So why would I be so foolish as to give up the chance to be who I am most or the rush of being carried to some new magical place when I finally connect in order to win some kind of market directed success, my mind divided from my hands, and my time to find myself as a painter easily gobbled up by the endless and intense efforts to get the attention of people who have assumed the role of experts but who have never painted in their lives?

Here’s what I get from Renoir: first, paint, express who you are, think deeply about painting, get as good as you can, and then paint some more. I like to tell the story of when I first tried plein-air painting. I brought my little 8x10s back to show my teacher. He said, “I’m glad to see that you are going out. Now, after you do two or three hundred of these, go on to 9×12.”

I don’t know. I think Renoir did some really good work. Maybe those haters out there ought to go out and do two or three hundred little paintings en plein-air and feel the rush of exercising their own power. I bet they would change their minds. Who knows? They might even become disobedient and protest outside of universities and demand that art departments teach something about serious painting.


[1] http://nyti.ms/1hskkGT

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/business/art-collectors-gain-tax-benefits-from-private-museums.html

[3] http://money.cnn.com/2015/03/20/investing/stocks-companies-record-cash-level-oil/; also see https://www.counterpunch.org/2015/09/11/the-age-of-finance-capital-and-the-irrelevance-of-mainstream-economics/

[4] http://on.wsj.com/1QlJzK6

[5] The Impressionists, A Retrospective, ed., Martha Kapos, (UK: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 1991) p.33.

Jerry Fresia is a painter living in Italy.