Art review: Dixon showing pair of Renoir works dappled in drama

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “The Loge,” (1874) oil on canvas. Collection of Diane B. Wilsey.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “The Loge,” (1874) oil on canvas. Collection of Diane B. Wilsey.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “The Umbrella,” (1878) oil on canvas. Collection of Diane B. Wilsey.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “The Umbrella,” (1878) oil on canvas. Collection of Diane B. Wilsey.

A pleasant way to avoid summer’s heat — or downpour, as could happen — would be at Dixon Gallery and Gardens, looking at two paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, on loan to the museum through Sept. 2.

Displayed in the Dixon Residence among other mid- and late-19th century works, and not made a big deal over, “The Loge” (1874) and “The Umbrella” (1878) were lent by Diane B. Wilsey, a prominent collector and patron of the arts and other charities on the West Coast and board chairwoman of the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco.

In 1874, Renoir was 33 years old, an unknown artist still finding his way in terms of style, gesture and subject matter. He was friends with the fledgling Impressionists Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley, whom he met at art school, and had begun painting in a similar manner, though “The Loge,” the piece that he displayed in the first Impressionist exhibition that year, owes a psychological debt to Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas. The work displayed temporarily at the Dixon is a small but polished sketch for the larger version that was in the Impressionist exhibition of 1874 and is owned by the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

By 1878, Renoir had fully absorbed the principles of Impressionism. “The Umbrella” features the brilliant green, white, yellow and blue palette, the sun-dappled light and the merging of background and foreground that dominated the circle of Impressionist artists in the 1870s and ’80s.

In “The Loge,” Renoir offers an almost cinematic shot of two fashionable theatergoers in their box at the forward section of the mezzanine. The woman who sits in front, her hand clutching a small purse leaning on the balcony rail, gazes directly, imperturbably, at the viewer. Her dress and puffed sleeves are black and white stripes, while her ermine wrap, draped over her chair, continues the black-and-white theme. The abundance of flowers about her person — carnations at her waist and in her hair and a single flower that calls attention to her pale décolletage — and the extravagance of her dangling earrings and multitude of necklaces perhaps indicate that the woman inhabits the less-than-respectable demimonde of courtesans, mistresses, dancers and actresses that defined Parisian nightlife.

Her handsome and solemn escort, meanwhile, dressed in white tie and tails — it is evidently pre-showtime or intermission — uses his opera glasses, held in one white-gloved hand, to examine the crowd in the boxes and balconies on the other side of the theater. It seems that the real drama is not on stage.

How different are Renoir’s concerns four years later! The drama in “The Umbrella” lies not in any human relationships or social or cultural narrative, but in the paint itself, in the brisk flurry of brushstrokes and in the netting of sunlight that falls flamboyantly on a riot of bloom. The model sits patiently, and rather extraneously, in the shade of an arbor — its cross-hatched shadow marks the lower right of the painting — and of her white parasol, while behind her rises a prodigal mass of flowers whose texture makes them indistinguishable from the pigment that depicts them. The focal point of the piece, however, is neither model nor flowers, but the slightly off-center device of the umbrella, so white-hot that it is incandescent. The artist layered on the paint here with his palette knife, signaling a necessity and a freedom new to European art. Get as close as you can (without the guard admonishing you) to see the remarkable effect.

Ironically, or merely in the course of his personal development as an artist, Renoir, within a few years, backed away from this kind of Impressionism. After a period of study in Italy and under the influence of ancient Roman and Italian Renaissance art, he forsook the improvisational air of Impressionism for a more Classical sense of composition and subject, embarking on the long series of monumental female nudes that made him famous and occupied him until his death in 1919.

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