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Dancing with Renoir reunites trio of Impressionist paintings in Boston for first time since 1986
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Boating Couple (said to be Aline Charigot and Renoir), about 1881. Pastel on paper. Given in memory of Governor Alvan T. Fuller by the Fuller Foundation. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MASS.- A glorious trio of full-length dancing couples painted by Pierre-Auguste Renoir are celebrated in Dancing with Renoir, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), presented from May 19 to September 3. Renoir’s Dance at Bougival, one of the MFA’s most beloved treasures, has been reunited—for the first time in Boston since the MFA’s Renoir exhibition in 1985–86—with two of the artist’s masterpieces, Dance in the Country and Dance in the City, lent by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Conceived and executed as a pair in the same year as Dance at Bougival (1883), they offer a deeper context for Boston’s own work. These monumental paintings are on view as part of the MFA’s Visiting Masterpieces series in the Sidney and Esther Rabb Gallery along with two additional works by Renoir from the MFA’s collection, The Seine at Chatou and Boating Couple, both created around 1881.

“We are pleased to welcome these two paintings from the Musée d’Orsay to our galleries, where they will take a whirl on the dance floor with the MFA’s own magnificent couple in Dance at Bougival,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. “The Musée d’Orsay has generously given us the rare opportunity to share with our visitors these three extraordinarily beautiful works.”

Measuring approximately 6 feet tall, these paintings illustrate Renoir’s dedication to the life-size format, which he used to depict themes of leisure, movement, and fashion. They offer distinct variations on the theme of the dancing couple enjoying life in late 19th century France. Dance at Bougival, acquired by the MFA in 1937, is the first of the three he began and the last one he finished. In it, the woman, whose face is framed in a red bonnet, turns her gaze from her partner as they dance away the afternoon at an open-air café in Bougival, a popular recreation spot on the Seine just outside of Paris. With its intense color and lush brushwork, the painting captures the flavor of this casual summertime setting, where other guests are seen in the background and the floor is littered with cigarette butts. Renoir’s Dance in the Country also features a red-bonneted woman, albeit one seeming to more heartily enjoy the gaiety of the moment. She smiles directly at the viewer and holds a fan as she and her partner embrace and glide on the dance floor. Its pendant, Dance in the City, shows another couple posed similarly to the one in Dance in the Country, but the setting, appearance, and the mood are in marked contrast. As with the two other grand canvases, the woman here is the focus of this ballroom scene. Dressed fashionably in a sumptuous winter-white gown, with long gloves and perfectly coiffed hair, she dances with a formally attired man, her gaze directed away from him. Although the positioning of their bodies evokes the happy couple in Dance in the Country, their pose is elegant and restrained. Renoir’s three dancing couples will come to the MFA directly from The Frick Collection in New York City, where they were included in Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting, which ended on May 13 and has attracted record crowds.

“Having the occasion to exhibit the MFA’s greatest Renoir alongside two closely related works allows us to better understand both our own painting and the artist’s choice of a full-length format,” said Ronni Baer, the William and Ann Elfers Senior Curator of Paintings, Art of Europe, at the MFA, who curated Dancing with Renoir. “We can visualize the editing process as Renoir made each couples’ stance, clothing, and environment unique.”

The idyllic escapism of many of Renoir’s works is captured in his dance scenes featuring the lush settings that attracted many Impressionist painters to the countryside along the Seine. While the identity of the models in Dance at Bougival is debated by art historians, it is known that artists’ model Suzanne Valadon is the woman in Dance in the City, where she is pictured in the arms of Paul-Auguste Lhote, a friend of Renoir’s. In Dance in the Country, Lhote again portrays the man, this time dancing with Aline Charigot, who was Renoir’s lover, model, and eventually his wife. Charigot is also featured in Boating Couple, where she is seen in a flower-trimmed sun bonnet, sitting across from a straw-hatted man, presumably Renoir. The pastel depicts the pair either about to embark on a boat trip, or just returning from one.

Complementing these works is another painting by Renoir, The Seine at Chatou. It showcases the radiant landscape just west of Paris in Chatou, across the Seine from Bougival, where the leisure class of Paris sought escape. Carefully differentiated brushwork in the painting brings the pastoral setting to life, with golden grasses, blossoming trees, a girl gathering flowers, and boaters off in the distance. It is one of 13 paintings in the MFA’s collection of 41 works by Renoir .

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