Reviews: Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners
The heart-breaking task of compiling evidence of the consequences of multiple restorations on Renoir’s “Baigneuse” shown here on July 11 raised the spectre of such having occurred throughout the artist’s oeuvre. Does Renoir remain today the artist that he was originally? Are scholars indifferent to restoration changes and therefore presenting adulterations as if still original and pristine states? To help answer these questions, we consider the record of The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, an institute with high scholarly aspirations that was generously founded on a passionate and well informed love of art.
A large group of the Clark Institute’s Renoirs is on show at the Royal Academy’s “From Paris a Taste for Impressionism” exhibition. In the catalogue the institute’s director, Michael Conforti, boasts that “the Clark is where ideas happen.” In 2003 he declared: “To us at the Clark the quality of the ideas that emanate from the study of a work of art is as important as the quality of the object itself.” An idea yet to happen is that scholars, recognising the need to protect the inherent qualities that creative works of art bring to the party, should attend to the irreversible changes that restorers make. Certainly, some such corrective is overdue to commonly held uncritical assumptions that in whatever condition a picture might be found today, it will be good and perfectly sufficient for any scholarly purpose.
Between 1916 and 1951 Sterling Clark, an intriguing and attractive figure in the grip of a declared passion for Renoir, collected thirty-eight of the artist’s pictures. Since Clark’s death in 1956, five of these have been sold off and many have been restored. The Royal Academy is one of countless stops for the Clark’s currently peripatetic pictures as this intellectually self-regarding institution expands and “renovates”. Although the Academy show’s catalogue offers no evaluation of the present condition of the collection, it contains two fine essays – “Sterling Clark as a Collector”, by James Ganz, and “Refined Domesticity: Sterling Clark’s Aesthetic legacy” by Richard R. Brettell – which might profitably inform such a discussion. Unfortunately, the catalogue taken as a whole and together with two preceding and related exhibition catalogues, “A Passion for Renoir”, 1996/7 at the Clark Institute (Fig. 11), and “Renoir at the Theatre”, 2008 at the Courtauld Gallery (Fig. 12), implicitly presents today’s states of Renoir’s pictures as if they have remained original and authentic.
Brettell shows Clark to have been one of a sizable group of American collector/enthusiasts who pushed Renoir’s prices to record highs in the early twentieth century when the supply of pukka old masters was dwindling (and the modern wheeze of upgrading school works was not yet in full flood). Ganz shows that Clark’s collection comprised a cross-section of a decisively selective part of Renoir’s oeuvre. Considering Renoir to be one of the greatest painters ever, Clark nonetheless abhorred his numerous late nudes (with arms and legs which he likened to “inflated bladders”). Clark felt that the artist’s best painting had been done early, and thirty-one of his thirty-eight Renoirs were painted before 1885, with six from 1881, which year he judged the artist’s finest hour. This discerning and focussed selection gives the Clark collection invaluable force of testimony and the Royal Academy is now showing twenty-one of the institute’s remaining thirty-three Renoirs, but there are further reasons for attending to the present state of Clark’s Renoirs.
Although Ganz, formerly of the Clark institute, makes no mention of the pictures’ conditions today he variously discloses that Clark held that picture restorations do more harm than good; that he viewed art historians with disdain; that he learnt early not to depend on “experts” for guidance; and, that on being bitten by bad professional advice, he had resolved to become his own expert:
“In 1913 Clark bought Portrait of a Lady by Domenico Ghirlandaio and Walking Horse, a bronze by Giambologna. Both purchases were facilitated by the American sculptor George Gray Barnard, who had been a friend of Clark’s father. After being assured that the Ghirlandaio had not been retouched, and a copy of the Walking Horse was a unique cast, Clark subsequently found that both of these claims were false. On a trip to Italy in the summer of 1913 he discovered a postcard of the Ghirlandaio in an altered state, and a copy of the Walking Horse in the Bargello in Florence…”
Clark’s admiration for Renoir is shown to have beeen singular. He had considered Renoir without equal among old masters as a colourist and unsurpassed as a painter, that is, as an applier of paint to canvas. He had granted artists like Leonardo, Ingres, Degas, and Bouguereau to have been Renoir’s superiors in terms only of their “suave line”. He complained of English portraits “overcleaned by Duveen” at the Frick Collection. Above all, Clark’s will of 1946 is cited to show that he had expressly prohibited any restoration of his own to-be bequeathed pictures:
“It having been my object in making said collection to acquire only works of the best quality of the artists represented, which were not damaged or distorted by the works of restorers, it is my wish and desire and I request that the said trustees…permanently maintain in said gallery all works of art bequeathed hereunder in the condition in which they shall be at my death without any so-called restoration, cleaning or other work thereon, except in the case of damage from unforeseen causes, and that none of them be sold, exchanged or otherwise disposed of…”
So, we now know that Clark’s Renoirs had been carefully selected on both artistic criteria and excellence of physical condition. That the trustees subsequently disposed of five of these Renoirs is acknowledged but not explained – had they legally overturned the bequest’s conditions or simply ignored them? Fortunately, their writ does not run to undoing historical visual evidence, and Ganz is to be applauded for reproducing the two-page Life magazine photo-spread from 1956, and thereby giving today’s viewers a glimpse of the state of some thirty untouched-by-Clark (and possibly never previously touched) Renoirs at that historic juncture. Although the catalogue reproduction is small, it is sufficient, when viewed within the exhibition, to show that were Clark’s Renoirs to be so-assembled once more, some at least, would not be the same pictures. (See Figs. 7, 8, 9 and 10.)
With photographic records, when due allowances are made for technical variations and vagaries of reproduction methods, a given photograph affords testimony on the dispositions of tones or hues within a given work at a particular moment under a particular light. With modern artists, where first photographs frequently pre-date first restorations, it is striking that similar patterns of weakening recur in the historic photographic record. There is a simple, elegant proof that such changes pinpoint injuries: it would not be possible today to photograph works in a manner that might replicate their earlier appearances. How might the face seen at Fig. 23, for example, now be photographed so as to show the qualities formerly recorded in Fig. 22? Often the weakening is of a general overall “washing-out”, “scrubbing-away”, “Brillo-padding” character. Often, it is seen in local disruptions of original values and relationships. Often, both types occur together. Often one can witness an after-image halo effect where original material has been removed – in Renoir, hair would seem to be especially prey to such injuries (see Fig. 4).
In assembling the pictorial evidence opposite, we were horrified by a realisation that within the general restoration mayhem, a systematic undoing of a rare but distinctive and precious Renoir type of female face has taken place on two major Renoir paintings, both of which, thanks to the Clark exhibition, are found presently in London. These are his 1880 “A Box at the Theater (At the Concert)”, which is said in the current Royal Academy catalogue to be “The last and arguably most ambitious of Renoir’s depictions of elegantly dressed figures seated in theatre boxes”, (see Figs. 4, 11 and 15 to 20), and his earlier 1874 “La Loge (The Theatre Box)”, which was described in the 2008 Courtauld Gallery catalogue as “one of the iconic paintings of Impressionism and a major highlight of the Courtauld Gallery” (see Figs. 1, 2, 3, 12 and 21 to 24). If the appraisals are sound enough, the surrounding explications on these two great works are artistically inadequate.
To take the Clark’s “A Box at the Theater” first: in the 2012 Royal Academy catalogue entry it is said variously that the picture is: “marked by warm colours and rich brushwork”; that “the woman on the left, resplendent in a full length evening gown, looks directly at the viewer”; that the woman and her younger companion “seem lost in reverie”. The scene is said to be situated in a theatre (even though when first exhibited in 1882 it was under the title “Une loge à l’Opéra”): “the background details suggest a theatre rather than the recently opened Palais Garnier”, and “Without the dark red curtain and the fluted pilaster, it would be difficult to locate this scene in a theatre at all.”
Needless to say, this is a reading of the picture as it is today. There is acknowledgement that radical changes had been made by Renoir during the execution of the picture but no acknowledgement of the fact that the architectural features said to locate the scene in a theatre or an opera house have been almost washed away – see Figs. 15 and 16. It is said that the picture had originally been commissioned as a portrait of the daughters of a French Under-Secretary of State for Fine Arts who had subsequently rejected it. It is said that Renoir had then reworked the picture, generalising the sitter’s features, and at some stage had painted out a male figure in the background. Specifically, it is acknowledged that Renoir had “also altered certain facial features and changed the hairstyle of the woman on the left”. It is said that when Clark bought the picture in 1928 he greatly admired it and said “the woman is lovely, the colouring, facture and composition great”.
In the earlier 1996 Clark catalogue (Fig. 11), in an entry under the twin headings “Images of Women” and “Society Portraiture” (the latter sub-heading preceding “Bourgeois Pastimes”), it is said that the subjects were not the daughters but the wife and daughter of the Under-Secretary; that the “expensive evening dress of the woman and the plush red interior of the box suggest Charles Garnier’s opulent Opéra”; that far from looking directly at the viewer, the woman’s “glassy, dreamy expression – her mouth forms a slight smile and her eyes look off into the distance” suggests that “she is completely unaware of someone else in her immediate vicinity”. For the author of this entry (Karyn Esielonis) the woman’s “passivity enables the viewer to look at her without interruption and reinforces period conventions that cast the woman as someone to be looked at rather than someone who actively looks” and who, in fact, cooperates with her own bondage by “sinking back into the plush sensuously red material of the loge, so that she may be perused”. While the girl on the right “turns demurely away”, it is expected that, on reaching sexual maturity her behaviour will change accordingly, and, she too, “will become the object of the gaze”. The late John House spoke specifically of “the engendered gaze”.
The Clark picture was included in the 2008 Courtauld show and the catalogue (Fig. 12) provided a bridge between the Theatre/Opera divergence. That is, when the picture was acquired by Renoir’s dealer Durand-Ruel in 1880 it was registered with the title “Une loge au théâtre”, but when exhibited two years later it was titled “Une loge à l’Opéra”. The Courtauld catalogue entry includes an “X-radiograph” and an infra-red photograph, thereby rendering the features of the man who had been painted out in the upper right corner more discernable. The description of the painting itself is as slack as that in the 2012 catalogue and is conducted in terms relative to related pictures: “The canvas is far more muted and conventional in tonality than Café-concert (Au Théâtre)…”
However, if we look at older reproductions of this painting (in our case from 1921 onwards when it was just forty-one years old) we find that the picture, as bought by Clark in 1928, was then different from its present state; different in its general dispositions (see Figs. 15 and 16); and, different in its particulars (see Figs. 17 to 20). As mentioned, the pilaster on the left of the picture has now been almost washed away. Much of the former shading around the woman’s eyes has been lost, with the result that the pupils and irises of the eyes increasing resemble a pair of olives set adrift on a plate (Figs. 4 and 20). Her hair has been lightened. The expression on her mouth has changed. The end of the glove on her right arm has been redrawn. Crucially, her gaze no longer fixes on the viewer as it may have done in 1925 (Fig. 15).
Like the Clark picture, the Courtauld “La Loge” may have been (?) unrestored when bought in 1925 by Samuel Courtauld who cherished “its subtle charm of surfaces” and placed in the music room of his house in Portman Square. Like Clark, Courtauld passed his collection to the public domain upon his death in 1948. The head of the Courtauld Gallery, Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen, speaks in the 2008 catalogue of the picture having been “lent to exhibitions internationally, and reproduced countless times in numerous media”, adding “And yet, in some respects, fame has also veiled this picture, its familiarity and its reductive status as an archetype of Impressionism perhaps acting against close scrutiny.” While ever closer scrutiny is to be welcomed, an examination of the physical and artistic reduction of the painting itself would seem more urgent than one of the soundness or otherwise of its virtual perception in the world at large. Perceptions and mis-perceptions can be altered. Altered pictures are forever – restoration is a one-way street of compounding injuries.
No mention of the Courtauld Gallery’s “La Loge” is made in the 2012 catalogue entry on “A Box at the Theater” but in the 1996 Clark catalogue “A Passion for Renoir” it is said that the picture features “a lavishly dressed woman, her face heavily made up…” Critics at the time of the first showing had questioned the morals of the woman as one who unabashedly presented herself for public view aiming to “attract people with her wicked charms and [the] sensuous luxury of her clothes”. In the 2008 Courtauld catalogue, John House, too, noted that some critics of the day had taken the sitter not as a woman of high fashion but as “an iconic figure from the demi-monde”. Seemingly dismissing such readings, House, added “In reality Renoir produced the painting in his studio using his brother Edmond and Nini, a model from Montmarte nicknamed ‘gueule de raie’ or ‘fish-face’ as the sitters.” As, indeed, he had, but then, as so often, the critics of the day were on to something that later champions have missed: by whatever means it had been produced, this truly was a work of dangerously seductive power.
For his part, House describes the picture as it now is, as seen here at Figs. 2, 3, 22 and 24, and not as was, as today glimpsed at Figs. 1, 21 and 23. He notes that “the viewer’s eye fluctuates between bodice and face in search for the principal focus of the composition” – when in the recorded earlier states of the picture, he could have been in no such doubt. The face had not only been more decisively modelled (Figs. 1 and 23) but the head had been separated from the bosom and bodice with both more pronounced shading and a more glittering “choker” of jewels at the upper neck (Figs. 21 and 22). While alerting us to the realities of artists’ working practices, House, by also confining himself to the picture as it now is, obliges himself not to comprehend the full extent of Renoir’s achievement. What had once been nothing less than a supreme artistic invention of female type, a face of awesome charismatic and enigmatic force that, in truth, had constitued a Mona Lisa for modern times, is now physically reduced and artistically traduced by restorers who have borne down on Renoir’s final paint film with their swabs and solvents and Lord-knows what else, leaving a picture that now generates only art historical short-change – a decorous patter of sociology and applied psychology.
…A picture that nowadays serves as grist to endlessly recycled analysis of tyrannical “engendered gazing”, posh frocks and past high bourgeois social mores – interesting enough, in their own way, but ultimately distractions all, as if to divert our gaze away from recollections of what once was. Once, it was beyond question that this woman’s face was the compositional and psychological epicentre of the picture, her enchanting bejewelled and beflowered bosom notwithstanding. Each of the face’s individual features commanded/rewarded intense scrutiny. Her mouth, sensuous, luscious, self-aware in its precisely composed invitation, had once – and in some degree until recently (see Fig. 1) – been more than a match for that seen in the National Gallery’s Rubens “Le Chapeau de Paille” (Fig. 31). The gaze of her eyes, once dark, mesmerisingly deep, supremely confident (see Fig. 23) was that of no ordinary, specific, prosaic woman; belonged to no portrait of a hired-in fish-faced model. Nor was this image mere social stereotype in some moralising, agit-prop genre tale. This was nothing less than the transcending realisation of an eternal female possibility, of one supremely aware of her own sexual magnetism and accompanying powers; of one more than content to abandon her male companion to his own distractions. An icon indeed.
What a tragedy, therefore, that this Carmen, falling among restorers, should have been reduced to Micaëla, reduced to her own still brilliantly sketched but now merely sweet, almost ingénue-like preparatory stages, losing the flash of her nostrils (- in this, too, rivalling Rubens) and the luxuriance of her sensuously elaborated coiffure. In short, being made more ordinary by ordinary people wreaking their terrible uncomprehending revenge on an extraordinary talent through their appropriation of a masterpiece crafted by one who had hymned his own private especial celebration, in paint, on a surface.
Sterling Clark died on 29 December 1956 shortly after the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute which he established and endowed and to which he had left his fabulous collection (not just of paintings but of drawings, books, prints, silver and porcelain) had opened. He might have expected that the institute’s trustees would honour the terms of his bequest and respect his wish that the unrestored works he had acquired with such assiduous ground work (and with great wealth, of course) should remain unsullied. James Ganz has reported that on Clark’s death, his widow Francine (whose important role in assembling the collection had been honoured by the inclusion of her name in the title of the institute), continued to sit on the board, “asserting her opinions on the arrangements of paintings in the galleries, looking to maintain her husband’s wishes”. Francine Clark died in April 1960.
Within three years of Francine’s death the first of what were to be two radical and utterly deranging restorations of Turner’s “Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water” was under way at the hands of a then “leading restorer”, William Suhr (see Figs 32-4). We were first alerted to the Clark Institute’s radical restorations in 2003 by the painter Edmund Rucinski who had known the collection intimately up until 1963 and who had spotted the further and compounding transformation of the Turner. On this second bite at the restoration cherry, the restorers claimed that the painting had been falling apart and that, besides, seventy-five per cent of it consisted of earlier restorers’ repaint, applied to “disguise the evidence of some unknown earlier trauma”. Only by removing most of the present paint, they insisted, could “a full understanding of what lay beneath” be achieved. That treatment, authorised by the trustees, was claimed by the interested parties to have been a “resurrection” which had created an “effectively a new picture”. In this new picture, the last traces of the second, nearer steamboat that Turner had painted battling its way towards harbour in a storm, disappeared under the waves, its filthy coal-produced smoke being converted into a water spout or perhaps steam jet (Fig. 34). Not only was this twice-over undone and redone wreck then deemed a new picture but it was also judged to be miraculously cured of all structural ailments and free to be dispatched across the Atlantic to go on tour to Manchester and Glasgow.
At the time of the UK trip, the Tate Gallery issued a press release claiming that the picture comprised “one of the stars of the show…[having] recently undergone major conservation”. Credulous British critics lapped up and regurgitated the claims. And, by coincidence, they have done so again as this Turner returned to the UK to do service at a Tate Liverpool show where works by Turner and Monet have been flatteringly permed with Cy Twombly’s solipsistic scribbles and dribbles.
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