When Pierre-Auguste Renoir's three sons donated "The Bathers" to the Musee d'Orsay in 1923, several members of the museum's board of directors, as well as its director, protested the gift.
"The director, in particular, protests the late style as not being a good representation of a national hero," said Esther Bell, the Robert and Martha Berman Lipp chief curator at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, during a tour of the exhibit "Renoir: The Body, The Senses," which opened Saturday. "A big back and forth, between the Renoir family and Musee d'Orsay, takes place in the press, and ultimately, it is accepted. Henri Matisse thought it was Renoir's masterpiece, as did Pierre Bonnard, as did Henry Moore, as did a number of other artists."
Co-organized by Bell and George T. M. Shackelford, deputy director at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, the exhibition, which coincides with the 100th anniversary of Renoir's death, explores the artist's depiction of the nude form and his continuously evolving style.
"The Bathers," considered to be Renoir's "manifesto painting," the summation of the artist's decades-long preoccupation with the nude, is exemplary of his late work, the most stylistically controversial period of his career.
In "The Bathers," one of 70 pieces in the show, the artist is more focused on shape, color and light; the lounging women are abstract in nature, rather than careful depictions of his models.
"There are so many interesting things taking place here," Bell said. "There's a loose manner of painting, especially in the bodies, punctuated by this almost violent application of color. There's something complicated and very emotional that is taking place here."
Avant-garde artists, including Pablo Picasso, admired and coveted these later works, championing his voluminous female nudes and his foray into the abstract.
"There's so much scholarship on this painting," she said. "[Feminist art historian] Linda Nochlin called it an anti-feminist icon with blubbery whale-like women. She goes on to talk about the offense of the late style, which is at its most extreme here. Mel Bochner, the American conceptual painter, talks in awe about this painting, how there's no skin, only flesh; how Renoir is challenging all painters to think beyond boundaries."
Known for his impressionist masterpieces, Renoir's last painting is a reminder that his style was not static.
Growing up in the shadow of the Louvre Museum, Renoir would study the works of Peter Paul Rubens, Francois Boucher and Eugene Delacroix. He would eventually gain permission to copy their works, replicating many of their paintings, including Boucher's "Diana Leaving Her Bath," which he greatly admired. He would study in the studio of Swiss painter Charles Gleyre, alongside fellow students Frederic Bazille, Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley in anticipation of taking his exams for entry into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
But even early on in his career, Renoir pushed back against the establishment, as he painted women, not in an idealized form, but as they were.
His classmates and he painted in the realistic style championed by Gustav Courbet. It was during this time that Renoir created, "Boy With Cat," considered to be his most audacious male nude. In the painting, a boy, embracing a large cat, looks back to the viewer, his body juxtaposed against a luxurious drape and velvet cushions.
"It's a such a brazen, unexpected image, that one might not necessarily — if you're not a Renoir aficionado already — may not be what you expect," she said.
Renoir's monumental work, "Bather with a Griffon Dog," exhibited at the Salon of 1870, in which he depicted a real woman drew criticism for failing to depict his model in a more idealized form.
Just a few years later, Renoir would be one of the central figures behind the impressionist movement, creating paintings later sought out by collectors, including the Clarks.
"He was known for this, but he wasn't doing this his entire career," Bell said of his impressionist pieces.
As the show progresses, so does the idea that Renoir was not one to follow trends, first casting aside the desired and expected idealized nude, and then later, setting aside the idealized nude of his own making.
In 1881, at the age of 40, Renoir traveled to Italy to study the masters, which culminated with a "stylistic crisis," known as his period of classical impressionism. It was during this time, he created "The Great Bathers," considered to be his attempt to rival the nudes of Rubens and Boucher. Although "The Great Bathers" cannot travel due to conditions of its bequest to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, seven out of the 20 preparatory drawings made for the painting, are in the show.
By 1890, Renoir had left the impressionist movement behind, experimenting with shape, size and color. His subjects grew larger, filling the canvas. His figures became less defined and similar in design — soft, voluminous woman who were thinner in the torso, with heavy round bottoms — who seemed to dissolve into the background.
For some, this style, is the "most Renoir," of all his genres — freer in brushstroke, bolder in color, full of experimentation.
"We've come a long way from [his early days in] the studio," Bell said, "which is certainly the point of this exhibition: to show how he was a chameleon; ever changing and ever pushing the boundaries of what paint could do."
Jennifer Huberdeau can be reached at email@example.com, at @BE_DigitalJen on Twitter and 413-496-6229.