Was Pierre-Auguste Renoir a “far more complex and thoughtful painter than generally assumed” who influenced a generation of avant-garde artists, or was he “the most overrated artist east, west, north and south of the river Seine”?
If you’re a Renoir fan, you probably go with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s description. If you’re not, you’d probably side with Max Geller, deliverer of that diss and leader of a mock protest in Boston this week against the art world’s fascination with a founder of the impressionist movement. Heller even created an Instagram account: “renoir sucks at painting."
If you want to decide for yourself, you can walk down to the Seattle Art Museum, which has an impressionist exhibit through Jan. 10 that includes Renoirs. (Think you can spot a Renoir a mile away? Try our interactive quiz below.)
“I’m amused by this protest,” Chiyo Ishikawa, deputy director of art at SAM, told The Record’s David Hyde. “And I think poor Renoir would have suffered from it even if he recognized the spoofy aspects of it because he really did want critical approval.”
Ishikawa said some of the criticism levied by Heller’s gang parallels what critics of Renoir’s day said, “that he can’t draw. He’s the one we think of with little tiny brushstrokes side by side. There’s a painting in our exhibition where the figures are painted exactly as the foliage and flowers. They’re just these little daubs of color, they don’t seem particularly grounded or solid.”
But Ishikawa pointed to another side of Renoir.
“The thing that he’s really, really good at – and it might be at odds with this criticism of this inability to portray form – is that he’s a really great portraitist,” she said. “There’s a beautiful portrait in the exhibition of his good friend Claude Monet, and it’s so solid, so full of interior life and personality. He is somebody who has some contradictions within himself.”
But what about current critics who think he’s overrated?
“The nostalgic aspects of impressionism, this idea of days that are always sunny and people who are always friendly and girls who are always beautiful, a lot that comes across in Renoir’s work,” Ishikawa said. “I do believe that he has a lot of tenderness when he paints, and I’m not sure that’s sentimental.”
So are there artists out there who might be overrated?
“It’s easy to say right now that someone like Damien Hirst is overrated or Jeff Koons is overrated because their market values are so exorbitantly high,” she said.
“But we have to be careful about making judgments particularly about the art of our own time because we don’t have the distance from this moment. Andy Warhol was somebody who was considered very overrated and made a lot people mad. Now we see him as kind of a prophet.”
Correction, 10:10 a.m., 10/9/2015: In an earlier version of this story, Max Geller's name was misspelled.
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