From April 1 to August 12, 2012, the spectacular exhibition Renoir. Between Bohemia and Bourgeoisie: The Early Years at the Kunstmuseum Basel
will focus on the underappreciated early work of the great painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (18411919). Fifty paintingsportraits, landscapes, and still lifes, among them masterworks from the collections of major museums such as the Musée dOrsay, Paris, the National Gallery, London, the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as virtually unknown works from private collections, form a magnificent panorama of the formative years of Renoirs art.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir was among the French painters who founded Impressionism. With a light palette, loose brushwork, and motifs from modern urban life and leisurely amusements in natural settings, he and his fellow innovators wrote art history. The painters Impressionist period and his late work have subsequently tended to eclipse other parts of his oeuvre. He has been celebrated as the painter of happiness, but that has also been a cliché to which he was reduced..
The Kunstmuseum Basel now presents a grand survey exhibition, the first show ever to emphasize the artists outstanding and surprisingly complex early work, up to and including the eminent Impressionist paintings of the 1870s.
Renoirs most important model during these first years of his career was his lover, Lise Tréhot. Their relationship lasted from 1865 to 1872. Lise sat for a series of important early works in which he staged her in a wide variety of roles and pictorial genres. This group of paintings constitutes a highlight of the exhibition. The two illegitimate children who issued from the relationship with Lise were given up for adoptiona fact that the artist kept secret throughout his life and that puts a new complexion on the ostensibly perfect idylls in his pictures of pairs of lovers and mothers with children.
Portraits of his friends and fellow artists Claude Monet, Frédéric Bazille, and Alfred Sisley form another distinct group. Renoirs own contribution to Impressionism is most clearly apparent in his landscapes, especially those of the countryside around Paris, and in his scenes of la vie moderne.
The period from the mid-1860s to the late 1870s is defined by extraordinary social, political, and artistic developments. The tensions between bohemia and the bourgeoisie, two milieus in which Renoir moved, are readily apparent in his oeuvre. He experienced the political seachanges from the conservative climate of the Second Empire to the revolution of the Paris Commune and hence to the Third Republic, even as he avoided involvement in these conflicts whenever possible. A young artists chances of achieving visibility depended on his work being shown in the Salon. Renoir and his fellow Impressionists rebelled against that institution by organizing exhibitions of their own. In the late 1870s, however, as his work slowly found official recognition, his attitude toward the Salon grew friendlier as well.
Renoirs early work lets us trace his evolution as an artist in fascinating paintings. Paintings from this period reflect the growing range of his pictorial imagination as he spent many days studying the paintings at the Louvre, but also took in the revolutionary innovations of his time: the realism of Gustave Courbet, the Barbizon schools en plein air painting, and the inspirations he received from Édouard Manet and Claude Monet, his closest artistic associates at the time.