Reynolds, Boucher, Renoir

In a protracted exchange with Nick, Barnby insists on the truth-telling ability of painting over writing where women are concerned: “Writers always seem to defer to the wishes of the women themselves.”  Nick replies, “So do painters.  What about Reynolds or Boucher?” [AW 75/69]

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) was the pre-eminent British portrait painter of the eighteenth century, notable for his erudition and his ability to synthesize both Italianate and Northern painting traditions into his own elegant compositions.  Reynolds was elected as the first president of the RoyalAcademy at its founding in 1768.  Commentators on the National Gallery of London’s website relate that Reynolds’ portraits have not lasted well over the centuries, faulty pigments having caused the flesh tones to fade, for example.  No doubt his women subjects would have appeared even more ravishing to their contemporaries than they do to us now, though in the case of Lady Jane Halliday, pictured below in Reynolds’ 1779 portrait of her, that would be hard to imagine.

Portrait of Lady Jane Halliday Sir Josuya Reynolds, 1779 oil on canvas, 94 X 59 inches National Trust, Waddesdon Manor (Buckshire, Great Britian) photo public domain from the Yorck project via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Lady Jane Halliday
Sir Josuya Reynolds, 1779
oil on canvas, 94 X 59 inches
National Trust, Waddesdon Manor (Buckshire, Great Britian)
photo public domain from the Yorck project via Wikimedia Commons

Francois Boucher (1703-1770), Reynolds’ younger French contemporary, is identified with the most extreme expression of decorative movement and delicate color known as rococo. Unlike Reynolds, who worked almost entirely in portraiture, Boucher energetically explored every genre of painting and made designs for decorative work in printmaking, porcelain and tapestry. Boucher, even at the height of his career and periodically since, has been criticized for elevating style over substance, but no objective observer could fail to acknowledge Boucher’s mastery in asserting a particular vision of feminine beauty, as exemplified by this image of Venus from 1751, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Toilet of Venus François Boucher, 1751 oil on canvas, 43 X 34 in Metropolitan Museum of Art photo public domain from Wikimedia Commons

The Toilet of Venus
François Boucher, 1751
oil on canvas, 43 X 34 in
Metropolitan Museum of Art
photo public domain from Wikimedia Commons

Later, Barnby insists, “In writing . . . there is no equivalent, say, of Renoir’s painting. Renoir did not think that all women’s flesh was literally a material like pink satin. He used that color and texture as a convention to express in a simple manner certain pictorial ideas of his own about women. In fact he did so in order to get on with the job in other aspects of his picture. I never find anything like that in a novel.” To which Nick responds, “You find plenty of women with flesh like that sitting in the Ritz.” [AW 75/69]

Nick had had this thought earlier, while actually at the Ritz: “Among a sea of countenances, stamped like the skin of Renoir’s women with that curiously pink, silky surface that seems to come from prolonged sitting in Ritz hotels, I noticed some familiar faces.” [AW 40/34]

Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was the French figurative painter most closely associated with the strand of Impressionism that sought to unite the Impressionists’ focus on the mundane aspects of middle-class life with painting’s traditional mission of celebrating and idealizing the glories of feminine flesh. Barnby insists that Renoir might portray women’s physical presence in the same way whether they were to be seen in the bath, the dance hall, or in the lobby of the Ritz.

After the Bath Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1888 oil on canvas, 26 X 21 in private collection photo public domain from Wikimedia Commons via the Yorck Project

After the Bath
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1888
oil on canvas, 26 X 21 in
private collection
photo public domain from Wikimedia Commons via the Yorck Project

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