‘Renoir, Impressionism and Full-Length Painting’, Frick Collection, New York

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Sweetness has been out of fashion for a long time. The reign of irony has trained us to look for romance in gritty places. Reality is dark. And Renoir, whose frothy entertainments once enchanted multitudes and experts alike, has become a guilty pleasure. His straightforward charm seems sugary to palates hooked on bitterness.

Yet the nine confections now gathered together at the Frick left me feeling sated, not sickened. Curator Colin Bailey has scoured the world’s finest collections – including the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, London’s National Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts – for a handful of Renoir’s early full-length portraits, made before he turned his attention exclusively to lava flows of flesh. These pictures taxed his abilities, but yielded pleasure and joy.

The show’s raison d’être is the Frick’s own “Promenade”, a painting that blends everything lovable and loathable about Renoir’s sensibility. Two apricot-cheeked girls, escorted by their rosy elder sister, process along the pathway of a Parisian park. Renoir lavishes his brushstrokes on their glossy long hair and the fur lining of their chic little jackets. The figures erupt out of clouds of paint, their faces like exclamation points amid a flurry of blues, greens and greys. All three girls come from the same glamourised cuteness factory, with identical bubblegum mouths, button noses and chocolate bonbon eyes.

When Bailey first arrived at the Frick a decade ago, “La Promenade” had been tucked away, a lone Impressionist cream puff in a club of meaty Old Masters. He soon transferred the painting to better digs, and has now fulfilled his desire to see it alongside its cousins – other full-length canvases betokening the artist’s salon-scale ambitions.

The son of a tailor and a seamstress, Renoir knew how effectively a good suit could substitute for a personality, and he scrutinised clothes more closely than their wearers. He was content to leave his models amiably bland, but he laboured over costumes that can be dated to the year. It seems, for instance, that an actress named Henriot posed for three paintings, “La Parisienne”, “La Promenade” and “Madame Henriot ‘en travesti’ (The Page)”, but the features in all three look so generic it could be almost anyone. The gown draping her body, on the other hand, is clearly a faille afternoon dress in a purplish-blue hue with a tight bodice, bustle skirt, and pleated hem. A museum in Kyoto has one almost exactly like it from 1874, the year Renoir conceived his alluring fashion-plate.

Even more weirdly, the identities of Renoir’s masterly dancing couples still remain obscure. The painter Suzanne Valadon claimed to have posed for all three, but her face and body don’t match up with the red-hatted shop girl in “Dance in the Country”. It seems likely that at some point, Renoir’s mistress stepped in – her broad, rustic features tally better with the painting. In the end it doesn’t matter who the woman is: individuality didn’t concern Renoir. He hid men’s faces and festooned them with headgear and accessories. In his world, costume alone could tell us everything we needed to know about style and social class, the things that really absorbed him.

Valadon may have been exaggerating the extent of her modelling, but her version of clothes-shopping with Renoir sounds completely convincing. She recalls visiting a milliner’s so that he could indulge his enthusiasm for hats, and tracking down the one hard-to-find glove shop that could cater to Valadon’s tiny hands. Renoir, she reports, was frustrated by dresses that covered up too much female flesh. “At dinners, women almost never wore low-cut dresses, alas! At best, their bodices had heart-shaped necklines, allowing the tiniest of openings onto the back. Poor old Renoir!” Still, Renoir made the most of the necklines he did procure. One critic of the time swooned over his virtuosity with an “adorable socialite’s profile, her matte shoulders, her well-modelled arm, and the graceful nape of her neck”. She was the quintessentially modern mondaine swaying in the arms of her elegant cavalier.

Of all Renoir’s paintings, the three whirling couples most successfully ply the straits between sweet and cloying. Each partner’s pleasure resonates with our delight in the gooeyness of paint itself. “Dance at Bougival” lures us to an idyll of dappled indulgence, where light sparkles on wine glasses and shades of peach-toned skin brush flirtatiously against each other. The man inclines his beard close to the woman’s velvet cheek. She demurs, looking down but holding close, locking her hand in his. There’s a hint of menace in the aggressive way he leans toward her, his tenacious grip on her waist. Is she swooning or submitting, deliciously abandoned or fearfully compliant? Modern debauchery mimics the rococo romance of Watteau. The background blurs as the couple spin through space.

As Renoir aged, his art stiffened. The fascinating “Umbrellas” comes out of the crisis he hit in the mid-1880s, as he inched away from the decorative swirls of his youth. He began this vision of a Parisian cloudburst in 1881, then set it aside. When he returned to it four years later his effervescent style had hardened. The three figures on the right still bear the gossamer brushwork of exuberant Impressionism. Their gowns belong to the early part of the decade. Everybody else in the picture, tricked out in more recent trends, has been reworked in the sober shadow of Ingres and Cézanne. The jutting and overlapping umbrellas that shut out the horizon intimate the jigsaw surfaces of Cubism.

Those stylistic disjunctions made “Umbrellas” hard to sell at first, but today its strange, transitional in-betweenness intensifies the picture’s appeal. It feels alive and searching and real in ways that none of the other works in the show quite do. The painting releases a symphony of surfaces, but it also opens a window on to a consciousness that Renoir otherwise kept assiduously opaque.

Until May 13, www.frick.org

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