Girls of the Met is a column that looks at how the Metropolitan Museum of Art is representing girls in their collections, using items that are publicly on view, and how we can reinterpret them to be more inclusive and activist in how we think about art, history, and culture. I’d love to know what you think of these reinterpretations!
In gallery 961 is a famous painting by a famous man showing a nude woman. Dear lord, does the Met have a fetish? Does the art world? I may not be standing in the museum as I write, but I can guarantee this isn’t the only female nude in this gallery or its neighbors. As the Met explains in their object label:
Pierre Auguste Renoir painted a great many canvases of single bathers in outdoor settings, timeless studies of fulsome young women. In the Lehman painting, his model averts her glance, seated in shy three-quarter profile. Innocent yet sensual, this charming nude would have pleased Renoir’s audience in the later nineteenth century. The picture is thinly painted, its brushwork soft and supple. Renoir probably posed his model in the studio, since the rapidly brushed landscape background is far more imaginary than real. Claude Monet first owned this painting, and remarked to a friend that while the nude was beautiful, the landscape was conventional. Renoir clearly concentrates his brush on the undulating physiognomy of his innocent auburn-haired model.
Link to object record: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/459110
First off, “innocent yet sensual” is a contradiction in terms. My English major friends are screaming. You can’t be both! (Or can you…?) Well, if you can, it’s because you are innocent (in your eyes) but sensual in their eyes. Oi vey. Let’s not go there.
Instead, let’s talk about the girl. And, well, yeah, okay, we’ll start with the men. First off, Lehman is the donor. Great, another white man buying nudes. Maybe we’ll give Robert Lehman a pass – he was a Jewish philanthropist – grandson of the co-founder of Lehman Brothers Investment Bank, so he had a lot of money and eventually took over the family business. Robert Lehman was really smart in business, and his decisions made him a lot of money while creating companies that are still around today, like Paramount Pictures. Among Robert’s hobbies was art collecting, building upon his father’s collection and serving on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Board of Trustees. When Robert died, nearly 3,000 artworks from his collection were donated to the museum, most of them being famous paintings by male artists, though I’ll give Lehman credit that he did collect female artists. The collection even got its own wing in the Museum.
That does nothing to actually tell us about the painting, just how it came to be sitting here. A rich white dude deemed it important to collect, and his wealth and influence – his power – led other people to think it was important to and give the artworks their own designated home for all to see.
Now, for the artist: Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Oh, Renoir, you sensual dog. Born in 1841, Renoir was a founder of the Impressionist movement who became known for his “charming scenes of pretty women.” Renoir floated around France with the other Impressionists – Monet, Bazille, Sisley – and was a known anti-Semite. Some people liked what he painted, commissioning him to do their portraits, which made Renoir financially well-off. But Renoir got jaded with Impressionism, and changed to doing paintings in imitation of the Old Masters (read: Renaissance-era white men). This is when he painted Young Girl Bathing, influenced by Titian and Rubens with the soft touch of an Impressionist. It’s possible that he was pushing into what later became modernism but he never quite got there enough to be considered a true Modernist.
Are we bored yet?
So, Old White Dude Lehman collected Old White Dude Renoir. Though the fact that a Jewish collector wanted to collect paintings by a well-known anti-Semite is…odd. (This is not the place to dig into that, though.)
But this doesn’t get us to the heart of this painting. Who is she? Why paint a young girl bathing? Isn’t that pornographic? This is the golden age of Victorianism! The supposed age of prudes! Why are we painting naked young girls?!
Truthfully, we do not know who this girl is; she is only ever called the “model.” She is one of many nude females in outdoor settings that Renoir painted, carrying on a tradition started in the Renaissance period (which he was trying to emulate) of painting the figure of Venus (goddess of love). As recently critiqued by David Carrier of Hyperallergic, showcasing all of these Venus paintings by Renoir is, well, problematic. Because he painted a lot of them – to the point where one contemporary said the only reason Renoir became a figure painter was because of the boobs. And that is our red flag.
Renoir was part of a male-dominated art tradition that prized nude females. Often, we find the men were also behaving badly with the nudes. While I could not find any evidence of Renoir behaving badly, he was part of an artistic tradition – “the tendency for male artists to voyeuristically paint nude women” – that was at the time seen as oversaturation and today seen as problematic.
So if we were to rewrite the Met’s label, it might go something like this:
“Young Girl Bathing” demonstrates Renoir during the 1890s, when he blended Impressionism with inspiration from Renaissance painters. This painting is typical of late 1800s male artists valuing females only for the beauty and sensuality they lent to everyday life. It also exemplifies a major critique of Renoir’s work – that his use of color was unnatural and unrealistic. While others explored light and shadow or critiqued society, Renoir made what he called “joyous and pretty, yes pretty!” paintings. We do not know who the girl is, why she modeled for him, or what became of her. All we know is what the artist gives us: her age (“young”), sex (“girl”), and activity (“bathing”) amongst a green, blue, and brown background.
What do you think? What kind of discussions does the new label prompt that the old one left out?
Girl Museum Inc.
Sources & Recommended Reading
“The Trouble with Renoir’s Nudes” by David Carrier for Hyperallergic https://hyperallergic.com/511548/the-trouble-with-renoirs-nudes/
“Why Everyone Hates Renoir” by Kristin Capps, The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/10/why-everyone-hates-renoir/410335/
“Revered or reviled: do we still like Renoir?” by Lydia Figes for ArtUK https://artuk.org/discover/stories/revered-or-reviled-do-we-still-like-renoir