Rediscovering a Renoir in 'Giselle's Remix' at the Clark Art Insititute in Williamstown


WILLIAMSTOWN -- Sterling Clark acquired his first Renoir painting in 1916 ("Girl Crocheting") for $20,000 -- considered a bargain at the time -- and collected Renoir's work over the course of his own lifetime, amassing one of the most impressive private collections of Renoir in the world.

While much of the Clark collection -- including some of the better-known Renoir works -- remain overseas traveling around Europe, there is a silver lining for those dipping into the Clark on a cold, winter afternoon: Some of these left-behind lesser-known works stand out a bit more without their more famous brothers and sisters getting all the attention.

s a case in point, take "View at Guernsey," a bright, vividly colorful landscape that Renoir completed on a visit to the Channel Islands of the west coast of Normandy in the late 19th century. While visiting there in September and October in 1883, Renoir completed many studies of bathers and visitors along the beaches, according to a very informative and inexpensive book sold at the museum, "The Genius of Renoir: Paintings from the Clark" by John House; Renoir also managed to complete four different landscapes while "on holiday," and the "View at Guernsey" is one of them.

Apparently this view of the southeastern tip of the island was a gentle stroll near the main town of St. Peter Port, where Renoir was reported to have stayed. Given all the recent attention to Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" of late, it's perhaps an interesting footnote that Guernsey was where the French author, Hugo, was exiled (1855-1870), and he set his novel "Les Travailleurs de la mer" on the island.

Back at the Clark, where the painting now hangs as part of 11-year-old Giselle Ciulla's guest-curated show, the work immediately draws the eye. Despite its rather modest size -- 46 x 55.7 cm -- and the interesting and eclectic selection of other works around it, Renoir's landscape of bright blue sky and ocean, contrasted with the long, grassy hills, almost pops, demanding attention even from across the room.

The texture and soft focus of Renoir's oil on canvas landscape gives the viewer the feeling that he is on this walk with the artist. Though Renoir finished the painting in the fall, it feels more like a brisk, windy but sunny late spring day. Perhaps it was too windy and cold on that day to invite others, as there isn't a hint of another creature in the painting.

Despite the absence of all humanity, the view doesn't feel at all desolate or lonely. While the colors of the view are limited to green, brown, blue and white, the shades of the blues and greens give the feel of standing in a bright, cheerful, inviting day. All these various and subtle hues also give the work a three-dimensional quality, a sense that we are in this scene, not out looking in. We almost forget that we're looking at a painting at all.

The French-born Renoir, who was born in 1841 and died in 1919, would have been in his early forties when he painted "View at Guernsey." He would have been at the peak of his powers, just before he moved from his impressionistic period to an experimental phase of somewhat more realistic work and technical precision -- best exemplified in a painting he completed just two years later, "Bather Arranging Her Hair," where the figure of the near-naked woman in the foreground is rendered with such care as to be able to practically see her individual eyelashes.

In contrast, there's a much more casual, spontaneous feel to how the clouds in the sky of "View at Guernsey" are rendered. According to House, he painted initially with a palette knife before more carefully working over the canvas with a brush.

Five years after the completion of "View at Guernsey," Renoir was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Though the condition did little to slow his output, it would impact his later painting style. Near the end of his life, he had to tie his paintbrushes to his gnarled fingers in order to be able to hold them. Still, he continued to paint almost every day until his death in December of 1919, just three years after Clark purchased his first Renoir.


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