Art Nerd: The True Colors of Renoir

Back in high school when my favorite teacher and life mentor, Mrs. Christenson, introduced me to art history, Renoir was my favorite artist.  What can I say?  I became enamored with his bright outdoor scenes and his personal philosophy that no artist should use black since paintings should make the viewer happy.  I fell for him at a point in my life when I needed that simplistic joyful aesthetic.  And of course I still enjoy Renoir, along with Monet and Degas, of course.  I just cannot handle rooms and rooms full of impressionism. (In fact I got unnecessarily angry walking through the endless impressionist galleries at D’Orsay this past December. It. never. ends.)

Now a small exhibition (and by small I mean it takes up less than a single gallery space) at the Art Institute of Chicago has gotten Renoir on my mind once again.  opened The exhibit opened just the other day, and I lucked out because its opening coincided with the last week of free weekdays the museum offered since the new year and a day of cancelled classes.  Entitled, “Renoir’s True Colors: science solves a mystery,” the exhibit reveals what was originally underneath the cool background of Renoir’s 1883 painting  Madame Léon Clapisson. I will always be in awe of what conservators can achieve with modern technology when it comes to preserving and understanding artworks that make up our history.  Using nanotechnology and other incomprehensible science tools, they have discovered that hidden behind the ornate frame (see the edges of the left image) and layers of pinks and blues, the original background was a deep, rich red called carmine lake.  Not only were they able to discover the original color, they also were able to digitally replicate what it would have looked like! What is so disarming and entrancing about this original color scheme is not just its bold, passionate red hue but the fact that it so unlike any Renoir I have ever seen.  Sure he used carmine lake in the background of his self-portrait in 1910, and there’s red in the carpet and curtains of Rose et Bleu, but it doesn’t seem nearly as aggressive, especially since the latter depicts two young girls.  And it’s also so intriguing as to why he changed it.  Was it because the client was unhappy or he was?  Did it not convey the right mood or achieve the harmony the later color palette achieves?  Who knows.  All I know as that it is a fascinating focused exhibit, and even though their free weekdays are through, you can still get in free of charge on those great but crowded Thursday nights.  So go examine it yourself and let me know what you think!  As for now, it’s nice to have some mystery and exci

The original Madame Léon Clapisson, 1883Digitally imagined orignal canvas

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