Renoir’s Squashy Bather Jostles Manet Roses in London

'Blonde Bather'
"Blonde Bather" (1881) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The model for this picture was probably the painter's mistress and future wife, Aline. Source: Royal Academy via Bloomberg

If you’re the sort of person who likes a little sugar with your syrup, then the new exhibition at the Royal Academy in London is for you.

“From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism Paintings From the Clark” is a mixed-bag selection of late 19th-century painting from one U.S. museum.

The common factor is that everything in the bag is sweet, and the overall flavor -- for my tooth at least -- is a little sickly. It is, however, a fair reflection of the taste of Robert Sterling Clark, who assembled the collection.

Clark (1877-1956) was one of the heirs to the Singer Sewing Co. fortune and the founder, with his wife, of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. All you need to know about him as a collector is that Renoir was his favorite painter (personally, I admit, I’m allergic).

“What a great master!” Clark wrote of the French artist in 1939. As a painter, Clark believed, Renoir had “never been equaled,” “as a colorist he has never been surpassed.” Clark backed that judgment with cash. There are no fewer than 20 Renoirs in this exhibition.

You get an idea of what Renoir could do -- and perhaps why Clark so loved him -- in the first room of “From Paris.” It’s devoted to still-life pictures (the show is organized by themes) and Renoir’s contribution is “Onions” (1881). An earthy subject, you may think, yet Renoir manages to suggest that the skins of these unglamorous vegetables are made from shiny satin.

Human Sofa

Renoir’s tendency to recreate the world to resemble glossy furnishing fabric gets plenty of exposure later in the exhibition. The naked body of “Blonde Bather” (1881) has been transformed into a human-shaped sofa cushion, boneless and squashy. On the other hand, the River Seine at a gritty Parisian suburb, “Bridge at Chatou” (c.1875) seems more like something edible: multicolored candy-floss perhaps.

Although this is billed as an array of Impressionists, there is also a sprinkling of items by more academic painters, including a “Seated Nude” (1884) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, the bete-noire of more radical painters.

Gauguin was interested to find some prints of Bouguereau’s work on the wall of a brothel in Arles (next door to the one at which Van Gogh delivered a severed portion of his ear). Gauguin thought that was exactly where they belonged. I agree.

Quiet Degas

Still, I don’t want to be curmudgeonly. There are lots of lovely things here, if you hunt for them. Near Renoir’s “Onions” there’s a beautifully fresh Manet, “Moss Roses in a Vase” (1882). Around the corner hangs a fine early “Self-Portrait” (c. 1857-58) by Degas, looking exactly as Lucian Freud described him, “a bit guarded and grand, in a quiet way.”

Scattered about there are good Pissarros, a magnificent Monet of “The Cliffs at Etretat” (1885), even one nice Renoir, of Monet’s first wife, from 1874.

All the same, there are no works on view that are at all abrasive or disturbing (as Degas, for example, could definitely be). This is an Edwardian millionaire’s dream: Everything is upholstered and luxurious, nothing is remotely uncomfortable.

Normally, I would argue against the suggestion that Impressionism is chocolate-box art. On the contrary, it was revolutionary stuff, and Manet, Degas and Monet were all great painters.

Many of the exhibits in “From Paris,” however, remind you not so much of the paintings they put on the boxes, as what there is inside. So, as I said, if you like your chocolate with centers sweet and creamy, you’ll probably love this show.

“From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism Paintings From the Clark” is at the Royal Academy, London, through Sept. 23. The show is supported by Edwards Wildman Palmer LLP and the Annenberg Foundation.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include John Mariani on wine, Richard Vines on food and Zinta Lundborg’s interviews.

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