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Beauty,Spring 2005
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Deceptive Beauty: Feminist Interpretations of Renoir

Nancy Evans

Pierre Renoir was a major figure in the impressionist movement in art history . Widely heralded as one of the most aesthetically pleasing movements impressionist artists played to the senses, paying special attention to the interplay of light and color. Impressionism is characterized by the artistic attempt to accurately and impartially portray reality, as well as an idealization of the female body as a metaphoric representation of ideals such as beauty or purity. According to art historian Tamar Garb, Renoir gained reputation among the impressionists as "above all, the painter of women" (296). Throughout his career Renoir, who is quoted as saying he found the naked male form 'embarrassing', painted countless women; most of whom fall into two categories: images of female nudes and images of motherhood. It is the former that this paper is concerned with, namely the ways in which the Renoir nude cannot be viewed in a vacuum. This paper will explore the notion that, although aesthetically pleasing, the Renoir nude serves as a misogynist tool that undermined women, stripped them of agency, and created essentialist associations of women with nature. The idea of the gaze will be explored, both of the male artist and viewer and, more thoroughly, the implications for feminist viewers whose gaze may be manipulated by the beauty of the Renoir nude so as to make it into something markedly anti-feminist.

Renoir made no secret of his sexist and misogynistic views. According to close friend and fellow artist Georges Riviere, Renoir found the presence of women "disagreeable" and was made to feel as though "part of his independence had been stolen" (298). Renoir believed women were essentially amoral and lived much like children "according to the logic of their instincts" (299). This view of women extended into representations of femininity in his art.
Although Renoir found women so distasteful in his life, he found them the perfect subject for his paintings. Interpretation of Renoir's depiction of women is typically consistent with the analysis of fellow impressionist Theodore Duret: "[Renoir] invested women with a kind of sensuality, an effect that was by no means studied but proceeded simply from his immediate perception" (296). Indeed, Renoir (as quoted by his son) was intent upon creating art that had no subject matter, art that "had no story at all...[but was] something that everybody knows" (294). This is problematic in many ways, namely because it implies that women have no narrative. If Renoir attempted to paint that which has no subject matter and decided upon women as the ideal embodiment of this desire, Renoir creates a paradigm within his artwork that asserts that women have no subject matter, that they are nonexistent other than in the beauty of their form. "My models don't think at all", Renoir is reported to have said. He manifested this belief through the "tiny heads and glazed eyes" characteristic of many of his nudes (302).

Renoir's paintings were constructed not to imply agency of the subject but to convey a recognizable image of the female form. Many times, the nude was surrounded by nature. Take, for example, Study of a Nude , a portrait of a young woman nude from the waist up surrounded by a halo of greenery. According to Garb, "rarely have women been made more available" than in Renoir's nudes, and Study of a Nude is no exception. The young woman's body is contorted so as to give the viewer a frontal view of her breast despite the fact that she is naturally seated in profile. The setting of the painting is unapparent and, by Renoir's measure, unimportant. The woman suffers from the aforementioned Renoir syndrome-- her giant eyes seem out of place on her minute head, which is starkly out of proportion on her luminous body. Her vacant stare reflects the artist's belief that "true women were not intellectually aware" (302).

Indeed, the only purpose of the woman in Study of a Nude is to be aesthetically pleasing and showcase her beauty without any threatening undertones of intellectual presence or thoughtfulness. This is not a conscious choice made by the women represented in Renoir's nudes, but rather a byproduct of the male gaze. In his book Ways of Seeing art critic and theorist John Berger examines the gaze and its affect on women. He postulates that the portrayal of a woman, particularly a naked woman, by a male artist plays into the age-old notion that "men act and women appear" (47). To paint a woman is to turn her into an object, specifically an object to be viewed—a sight. Berger attempts to analyze the male drive to paint female nudes; he addressed the male artist directly saying "you painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure" (51). This is a model for the interpretation of Renoir's nudes: Renoir enjoyed the naked female form so he perpetuated a myth that painting the nude is an artist's attempt to capture a metaphoric, natural beauty. According to Garb, focus on this feminine ideal as "high art" conflates the ideas of the appreciation of beauty (an intrinsic part of art history) with the admiration of the female form (and the objectification and essentialism of women that accompanies it).

Like many of Renoir's nudes, Study of a Nude's placement in nature is important. The style of painting itself—sweeping brush strokes, blending of paint, no definitive lines or borders—creates little distinction between the woman and the surrounding vegetation. Through this process, Renoir invokes the age old dichotomy of women being aligned with nature and men aligned with culture. This notion is similar to Berger's act/appear comparison and allows the female form to operate as an "extension of matter- earth, nature, pigment- so that the rendering of her flesh is seen to be outside of an ideological construction of womanhood and exists rather as a natural will to form" (Garb 294). Renoir uses the myth of female alignment with nature to assert he is a painter of the natural (Garb 297). Indeed, in Study of a Nude, the woman could very well be absorbed into the greenery in the background. Her ruddy cheeks and the free-form draping of the cloth on her body also give a natural impression.

What are the implications of a feminist audience viewing Renoir? Obviously, an observer familiar with both feminist theory and Renoir's attitudes towards women can see how his misogynistic views are transposed into his artwork. However, the connotations for a viewer who merely desires to engage with the painting as nothing more than a representation of something they personally find beautiful are different.

I am thinking of many of the reactions our class had to the Renoir paintings we observed at the Barnes, both formally as represented during discussions and informally in conversations outside class or at the gallery. Many people were struck by the beauty of Renoir's work, myself included. Although we nearly unanimously agreed we were burnt out on Renoir by the third or fourth room full, many among us admired the luminous bodies, natural settings, and beautiful faces of the paintings. As women and as Bryn Mawr students (although not to imply that being a Bryn Mawr student automatically makes one a feminist) should we have read an article such as Garb before viewing Renoir? Do we have a duty to be informed on issues of women's representation in art or do we have a right to allow ourselves to enjoy a beautiful experience? Personally, I found that between the first Barnes visit and the second, not only was Renoir ruined for me (I read Garb in the interim), but also Gauguin (he mythologized and misrepresented Polynesian women for his own artistic and sexual advantages), Degas (his beautiful ballet dancers were in fact glorified prostitutes with male patrons who would sponsor them for sexual favors), and Courbet (he went a step beyond Renoir, representing headless, bodiless female genitalia as the embodiment of beauty).

Many of us also expressed a desire to not have our gallery visit guided. Although we were talking specifically about Barnes' layout of the art with the accompanying accessories, do we want an experience that is just that—a blind interaction not guided by values, morals, or door hinges. And if so, are we merely playing into the objectification of women and the commodification of women's bodies. This is not a dilemma I feel equipped to solve, but from the variations in my two experiences at the Barnes, I prefer the latter, a more enlightened view. This may mean that I am skeptical and mistrustful of my own ability to judge beauty, or that beauty can undermine my feminist beliefs by tempting me with a pleasurable experience, but I think I am okay with that.


Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London. Penguin, 1977, pp 37-64.

Garb, Tamar. Renoir and the Natural Woman. Oxford Art Journal 8, no 2. (1985).
Pp 3-15

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