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In 1918 Renoir, fragile, swathed in bandages, too crippled by arthritis to hold a brush and with just a year to live, received a visit of homage from 48-year-old Matisse. The younger artist enquired about buying a painting; Renoir responded with the offer of exchanging canvases. “I’m truly touched, but I can’t accept,” replied Matisse, then at the height of his powers. “I’m not worth it.”

History has turned this verdict round. Today, Renoir, with his pulpy girls and party scenes, is a sugary crowd-puller, Matisse a father of modern art. Yet until the 1940s, Renoir’s radiant, painterly painting was regarded as the unrivalled height of Impressionism, with taste-setters such as Kenneth Clark rating him above both Monet and Manet.

Then abstraction and conceptualism became art’s postwar highways, and Renoir, resolutely unintellectual, was sidelined into the glossy cul-de-sac of popular bourgeois fantasy. Impressionism’s great story of radical breakthrough, meanwhile, grew dull through overexposure. Reclaiming artist and movement for the 21st century is the aim of the National Gallery’s magnificent exhibition Renoir Landscapes.

To speak of an unknown Renoir is to risk paradox, but this show delivers precisely that. Among some 60 major paintings displayed with lavish grace in the National’s wonderfully spacious main galleries, the highlights are all fresh, unfamiliar works from private or obscure American provincial collections. Sometimes they depict unusual or exotic settings. Together, they transform our view of the painter of pastoral boulevards into a struggling experimenter.

Are such landscapes typical? The surprise is that you end up thinking there is no such thing as a typical Renoir. Covering the first two decades of his career, 1865-83, when he was forging the new Impressionist style by starts and turns, doubts and convictions, this show ranges from the stately realism of Detroit’s rugged “A Clearing in the Woods”, whose silvery palette, even light and unyielding planar construction recalls Corot, to the jewel-bright cascades of crusty white pigment, overlaid with flashes of crimson, green, blue, in “The Wave”, borrowed from Memphis, which suggests Renoir as ancestor to Jackson Pollock.

Another work entitled “The Wave”, all lavender-cobalt twists of sea and sky, looks at once to Turner and Japanese prints. “Field of Banana Trees Near Algiers” is a genteel jungle comparable to Rousseau’s. The greatest work here, Toledo’s “Landscape at Wagremont”, reduces a tree-lined road snaking through a rainy Norman valley to vertiginous swirls and patches of hue – emerald, mustard-yellow, purple – in ways that anticipate Van Gogh. Its abstracting tendency was revolutionary enough for contemporaries to call it a slush of “redcurrant jam”.

Sweeping, dynamic, entirely unpopulated: such landscapes force us to reconsider the scope of Renoir’s talent, shaping our response also to the conventionally pretty works, which in this company take on an interrogative, hard-won character. Thus “The Seine at Chatou”, depicting a row of villas lining the river in a chic Parisian suburb, is classic Impressionist territory but also captures an instant when impressionism comes into being. Renoir dabs one building with bold flecks of white impasto – sunlight glinting from a glass roof? – and reflects it in thick blots in the water below: audacious shorthand to convey the immediacy of visual sensation, “the moment before recognition”, suggests curator Colin Bailey, “when optical effects are registered but not fully processed”.

In Pittsburgh’s “Garden in the rue Cortot, Montmartre”, Renoir peers down on an overgrown garden, a tumble of giant dahlias climb the tall canvas like a decorative panel, at a side angle two men chatting at a fence are diminutive figures in the middle ground; the collapsed space between them and the exuberantly painted floral foreground gives a dizzyingly flat, modern effect.

Renoir was unabashed in his belief that “for me a picture should be something likeable, joyous and pretty – yes, pretty”. While Monet was concerned with the changing effects of light, painting the same motif again and again in series, Renoir flits from scene to scene impulsively, brightening places, people, the relations between them as he dissolves everything in showers of light: the fleeting romances and interactions among pleasure-seekers at the fashionable boating establishment “La Grenouillère”; the relaxed encounter, conveyed in airy, free brushwork, between diners on the terrace in “Luncheon at La Fournaise”, the restaurant later immortalised in the Phillips Collection’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.”

No one shaped better than Renoir the image of Paris as site of 19th century pleasure; the National Gallery’s achievement is to breathe life into this myth with a collection of privately owned, rarely viewed, top-quality canvases, gleaming in their old Durand-Ruel frames, which show the city at play. In “Le Square de la Trinité”, the harsh contours of Baron Haussmann’s avenues are softened with a flurry of trees and bushes in full bloom; Renoir pierces leafy shades with sunlight to illuminate fashionable strollers, sketched in long, luxuriant pastel and honey brushstrokes.

The fluttery crowds are there again beneath a canopy of leaves, anchored by the dappled afternoon sun on the grass, in the resplendent “In the Parc de St Cloud”, while morning light warms the chestnut trees sprawling over passers-by in “La Place St-Georges”, one of the masterpieces of Gustav Caillebotte’s bequest rejected by the Musée d’Orsay and unseen for 50 years.

It does not matter that Paris was never like this. In contrast to aristocratic Manet or the banker’s son Degas, who strolled through their capital loftily deconstructing the social order, Renoir was born into a family of poor tailors and came to painting through a teenage apprenticeship as a decorator of porcelain. Rococo prettiness was his school; his taste exemplified the conservatism of the self-made man. His delicacy, feathery brushwork, silky textures, high varnish – compare the drier, matte finishes of his fellow Impressionists – and the luminosity suffusing his canvases, primed with smooth white porcelain-like grounds, can all be traced to his decorative roots and give his work a unique charm.

In spite of its wildness of colour, “Landscape at Wagremont” is tamed by a translucent glow, as if it were painted on enamel. A similar back-lit effect animates the exceptional “Jardin d’Essai, Algiers”, where in globby coagulated paint, palm fronds burst like fireworks in brown, purple, gold, red tones, yet a blond satiny base gives the work a delicious unity of surface, with no single element individualised enough to distort the harmony.

“What usurer nurtured these fronds for your pleasure?” mocks Anthony Blanche when the artist Charles Ryder attempts such scenes in “Brideshead Revisited”. Renoir’s Algerian park is owned appropriately enough by Las Vegas’ MGM Mirage corporation, creator of luxury hotels offering camp, tinselly recreations of old European cities such as Venice or Paris. “Jardin d’Essai” is a mirage of Africa created by a Parisian in love with order and elegance, but a mirage so powerful in its filmic impact – Renoir’s son Jean became a screen director, and there is a consistency of vision across the generations, and from canvas to celluloid – that you feel as if you have stepped into the stage set of its hothouse Franco-African grand allée.

“Je peint avec mon bitre” (“I paint with my prick”) Renoir used to brag in French slang. We are accustomed to the perfection with which he made oil paint depict the human body; the success of this original exhibition is to show, without a peach-skinned beauty in sight, how triumphantly he also transformed landscape, and the landscapes of the mind, into the lasting flesh of pigment.

‘Renoir Landscapes’ is at the National Gallery, London, until May 20. Tel 20 7747 2870. It then tours to the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and to the Philadelphia Museum of Art

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