Hating on Renoir

There’s this guy called Max Geller who really has it out for Renoir. Like, to the point of protesting in the streets over Renoir’s inclusion in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Which, I’ve got to admit that’s pretty entertaining, and I love that he got people like this Boston Globe reporter to feel like they needed to seriously defend Renoir against him. I mean, Renoir is one of the big names in Impressionism which is arguably the most well known art movement of the 19th century, when was the last time someone questioned his right to be in a museum?

I don’t know what Geller’s motivations are (my initial guess was an MFA project, because RIGHT? but it looks like he’s a law student?), but I do think the point he’s bringing up is a good one. Why do we include the artists that we do in art museums? I mean, right because they’re famous, but why are THESE artists famous and not others that are, oh, say, not so white and male? Perhaps even re-think the way we organize art history itself, and stop pretending there’s this grand sweeping narrative of visual from Ancient Egypt to Postmodernism that for some reason only Western Europeans were participating in, and then maybe we can stop trying to explain Postmodernism because everyone is awful at it.

So yeah, asking those questions? We need to do that more often, 100% agree, sign me up.

On the other hand, there’s the quality issue. There are plenty of famous artists that whose work I don’t like who I will defend, because my personal taste is not the end-all be-all arbitaire of What Is Worthy and neither is anyone else’s. Also, there’s a difference between saying something is bad and saying you don’t like it. I love art in general, but there’s plenty in particular that I don’t care for–just about everything done by Picasso for example–but I respect that he was doing something very intellectually interesting with how he was using form and shape and space in his paintings. Still don’t like the way the art looks though, and the guy was a jerk. On the other hand, Mark Rothko’s paintings are very easy to dismiss as just blocks of color, but in person (they need the scale) I find them mesmerizing and lovely.

And, this is a point that bugs me, it’s not very useful to debate whether a piece of art is “good” or “bad”. I mean ok, it’s useful if you want to get a group of people really angry at each other (or maybe that was just art school), especially if you have someone who’s insisting that anything that’s not photorealism sucks (there’s always one).


A better metric for judging art is whether or not it is SUCCESSFUL. What is the goal of the piece of art? A painting might do a really good job of illustrating the final moments of the Titanic but clash horribly with your sofa cushions, or be fantastic at exploring color theory while saying nothing about the socio-economic inequality in today’s society and that’s FINE. No single piece of art is going to be all things to all people.

Hauling this back to Renoir, maybe he shouldn’t be automatically prioritized just because he’s well known, but it’s not because he’s a crappy painter. It’s to give wallspace to other artists who’ve been historically overlooked and deserve some attention. Renoir has had plenty.

The Theater Box, 1874
The Theater Box, 1874

Celia Yost

Celia Yost is a graphic artist and painter by both training and trade. She's also prone to ill-advised craft projects and yelling about politics.

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  1. I did NOT GET Rothko until I saw some in person. Background and context helped too, of course; the posters just don’t do him justice (plus they usually do that weird pseudo-matting thing with oddly-kerned museum label information that I can’t say I care for).

    However, still… BEEFY FOREARMS

  2. Haha yeah, I’m both the best and worst person to go to an art museum with, because I’ll spend the entire time either complaining or getting really excited. A lot of large paintings don’t hold up in reproduction, actually, because it turns out when when the painting’s the size of a freaking wall in makes a difference in how you view it.

    I’m 100% with you on those forearms. I don’t actually like Renoir’s work very much; he’s my least favorite Impressionist.

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