Auguste Renoir’s La Promenade hangs underneath the main staircase at the Frick Collection, just outside the Fragonard Room. There is a grandfather clock nearby and a bust of someone whose name escapes me, while the Renoir itself nestles inside an arched space that doesn’t lead anywhere. I’ve been going to the Frick for years and the Renoir has always been there, but I wonder if it was hung somewhere else when the gallery first opened or way back when it was Henry Clay Frick’s private home. It is by no means the best and most prominent place to hang the painting in the Frick, but it is not the worst, either. It’s easy to describe the painting as “tucked away,” but I’m not sure how much meaning its location carries.
So let me describe it as most of my friends would. An implausibly pretty mother is taking her equally attractive daughters for a walk in the park. All three of them are dripping with money: the mother’s jacket is trimmed with fur, and the daughter that is not carrying an expensive doll has her hands firmly ensconced in a fur muff. The people in the background mill around decoratively, and they are depicted with just enough detail to make them exist without taking attention away from the central figures. For a painting that is meant to show people taking a walk, moreover, the figures are surprisingly static. They appear to have paused in the middle of their promenade and remained cooperatively still while the artist painted them. As a painting, it contains all the qualities that make it fashionable to knock Renoir: a privileged family enjoying a leisurely walk, there for us to gape at and enjoy. It’s the artistic equivalent of those kitten videos on YouTube, Renoir’s critics argue, at which children and unintelligent adults coo and on which the cognoscenti heap scorn.
But the fact is I quite like it. When I interned at the Frick, I played a mental game with myself where I would try to decide what I would grab if the building suddenly burst into flames. Of course, it would not be the Renoir, which I would happily watch turn to ashes if it meant I could save the van Dyck or Vermeer. But if I got to carry ten or fifteen works out of the blazing museum, it would probably survive. So why do I like an artist that people are lining up to decry? As I realize, I am in the minority. There is Max Geller’s “Renoir Sucks at Painting” movement and a host of other lesser-known wannabes waiting their turn to cast the next stone. But the fact that it is now fashionable to make fun of Renoir goes against the many decades during which he has been admired. It is not that long traditions of critical approval should be accepted without thought, but they should at least give us pause before we dismiss something—or someone—out of hand.
La Promenade is, perhaps, a little syrupy for modern tastes, but there is a lot within the work that deserves our attention. There is a mother’s love and pride in her children, evident in the way that she gently pushes them in front of her and guides the youngest one with a gentle hand upon her shoulder. There is the fact that Renoir has managed to give two sisters, perhaps only a year apart in age, distinct personalities. The elder carries her doll as she believes she will one day carry a living child, while the younger clearly has been told she is cute far too many times. The background figures are there, but we do not look at them: Renoir has captured that moment when suddenly within a crowded room we only see one or two figures, and our attention is devoted entirely to understanding who they are. I could go on, but I think you get the point. The protester with the “Re-NO-ir” sign outside the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston probably thought he was being very clever, but Renoir has him beat in terms of originality, impact, and intelligence.
So why did I choose to write about Renoir? To be honest, I was half-way through an essay on Cy Twombly whom I thought an artist much more likely to impress. But I like Renoir—seriously, not because he makes me think of crepes and accordions—and it bothers me when critics denigrate artists to make themselves look cool.