Tag Archives: Impressionism

Renoir’s Dance: story of passion

I still remember my first slow dance with a girl I fancied at the time when instead of proper chemistry I was researching the effect of having crystals of Iodine dissolved in Ammonia solution (a bang occurs when the resulting residue dries up, loud enough to make the teacher beat the school’s record in vertical jump). This, and the day I got drunk for the first time are the three things I remember from my school days.

Dancing was erotic then, even more so than making loud bangs. It was all about courting, flirtation, passion, and much jealousy for the less fortunate wall-propping boys.  I am not sure it holds true for contemporary dance, but even a twerking fan can try to imagine what it is to waltz with a partner who is not bobbing up and down like a sledge-hammer.

Dance is a single reason to come to National Gallery’s Inventing Impressionism show twice. I mean the three Dance paintings by Renoir. Rarely shown together since they were sold by Paul Durand-Ruel, a famous dealer who commercialised the Impressionists, they offer an ironic insight into the passions swirling on the dance floor.

Art historians seem to know everything about these paintings: time, location, model names, and brands of clothes they wear, but I feel the painter’s idea has been eluding them or they didn’t feel the general public should be made aware of it. Let’s remedy this, for it is best seen when the three paintings are together.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir made two paintings of dance in the country and one ballroom version in 1883.

Look at them and note the major difference between the two types of dance:


Dance at Bougival, 1883(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) Dance in the Country and Dance in the City (Paris, Muse´e d’Orsay, Photographs © Re´union des Muse´es Nationaux / Art Resource, NY) Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841–1919)

Outdoor dancing is much wilder than its ballroom counterpart. In the country, men don’t have to put on gloves, women can wear loosely fitted ones; the movement is dynamic, the plants, trees, and feelings are real. The ballroom type, with its somber white columns, potted plants, controlled steps, and orchestrated music, pales in comparison. That is, at first glance. Because at second glance, we can notice that the two country scenes are very different to each other, and there is a lot of passion in the ballroom scene too.

Let’s get closer to the couple in the middle, who seem to have left their table in a hurry to join the merry-making on the dance floor.

Dance 1 Reduced size

The man has put the hand of his lady in a firm grip, but she holds on to her fan as if it were a symbol of her independence. She didn’t take off her gloves: it is another barrier between her and her partner. The man is obviously quite taken by passion: he dropped his hat, but doesn’t notice it, his lips are almost touching the cheek of the girl, his eyes are cast down towards her face.

While she maintains her barrier at the top half, she’s quite flirtatious at the bottom: look at how her dress is painted against his leg. First, there is no separation between her dress and his suit, it looks like an Yin Yang symbol. Second, it’s the tiny details that you can only see up close and personal.


The blue reflection on the dress is very weak, implying there is no distance between them. The vertical border of the dress is also slightly shaded, because it is pressed against his leg. And yet, her hand rests on the man’s shoulder without embracing him, and her eyes flick back to the observer (and the artist).


She’s aware she’s being watched, and she flirts with her partner and the observer.

I can understand Renoir who used his future wife as the model here, and, perhaps, could not show her infatuated with one of his best friends, but I also understand her: she’s obviously playing with the man she’s dancing with, and with the man observing the scene, and enjoying every moment of it.

Now let’s spy on the left couple. Their dance is much more dramatic. When thinking about it, we need to remember that Renoir painted the background of his portraits to express his view of the portrayed person’s character. Here, the background is not just merrymaking and chatting. There are more men than women in it, and girls appear somewhat “hunted” by men.


Compare the way this man is dressed to the previous gentleman. He is very casual. Of course, dancing at a country cafe didn’t require a formal suit, but a white shirt and black shoes were still a must. Our guy breaks all the rules. And there’s something wild about him that screams he can, or at least he thinks he can behave like a predator.

Look at the way he holds her. In the previous dance, we had “separation” at the top and union at the bottom. Here, the position is different.

At the top, there’s a lot of passion: his neck is craned towards her, and even though she averts her head, perhaps, to avoid his forced kiss, her hand is thrown over his neck.

Dance at Bougival, 1883  Pierre Auguste Renoir, French, 1841 - 1919  Oil on canvas, 71 5/8 x 38 5/8 inches (181.8 x 98.1 cm)  *Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Picture Fund, 37.375  *Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston  25missing

At the bottom it is the opposite: they are apart.

We don’t have a thin “blue” line separating the girl from her partner. Instead, we have a blue blur that signals motion, clear lines that mean separation, and blue reflections indicating distance:

blue blur

So, what’s going on in this painting? The girl does not seem to offer much resistance, otherwise she wouldn’t be embracing the man, yet she somehow doesn’t what “it” to happen here and now. What is she afraid of?

Perhaps, the clue is in the painting itself. We just need to follow the girl’s line of sight.

Dance-line of sight

She looks at the flower on the floor. A cut, used, and thrown away flower, the colour of the man’s suit. Does the man strike you as an experienced ladies’ man  who had seduced and abandoned a legion of poor souls before his eye fell on this beautiful girl? Even if he does not seem the kind to you, the girl still doubts the prudence of offering him her lips. She wants to, desires to throw herself into his embrace, but… remember the flower, sweetheart, remember the flower, she keeps telling herself.

A friend of mine, having studied the painting, noticed a ring on her ring finger. Is she engaged? If yes, then it is unlikely she is engaged to the man she is dancing with: he doesn’t have a matching ring.

And now, we sail on to the ballroom, that initially seemed so lacking in passion against these country-cafe diversions.download2

How do they feel?

Unlike in the country dance paintings, we don’t see much of the man. But what we can see is quite revealing.


And what about the girl?

Perhaps, Renoir left us clues about her character too?

The simplest clue is this:

download (2) - копияHave you ever played with making shadows on the wall with your hand?

Look at the space between her thumb and index finger and then look at her slightly parted lips.

She and the man are bound by the rules and norms, but she dreams of a kiss, and that dream makes her blush.

If we look at her dress, which is cut by the frame, so that we don’t know where it ends or originates from, it looks a metaphor for passionate innocence that climbed up the man like a snow avalanche, just going upwards.

Remember, all the three “dances” are life-size: Renoir invites you to become a participant, and build your own plot from the glimpse of a story he painted in each of the them.

Renoir's Dancers, and an admirer
Сlick on the photograph to get to its source

And if you are not satisfied with life-size, there is a US artist who offers you an alternative:

Renoir - Dance at Bougival-L

It’s fun, I agree, but… it’s not good for artists. Artists who can’t make a masterpiece of their own love to exploit masterpieces of the past by turning them into hollow pop-art exhibits. It is an easy path to commercial success, but it is often a one-way road: there’s no turning back to creating your own masterpiece.

I am coming back to the show to see the three of them together, and then back again once more. It’s almost as good as mixing Iodine with Ammonia in the school lab and watching your classmates catapult themselves in the air.


Painting a dawn? Easy! What can be difficult in painting a dawn like this?

Nipton desert dawn. Source.

A lot of pink and blue at the top versus a lot of dark colours at the bottom. A sharp skyline standing clearly against the sky. The sun is not out yet, so the shadows from objects are not clearly defined.

Now, what if you need to paint the dawn as a metaphor of humanity, faith, life? A lot of red paint diluted by its white counterpart to produce a tender pink colour won’t be enough.

This is why it took Ivan Kramskoy, a Russian artist of the 19th century, almost ten years to come up with this final version of Christ in the Desert, completed in 1872. It was an interesting moment in history.

It was the year when Paul Durand-Ruel, a 51-year-old gallerist, discovered Impressionists and started investing into their promotion in Paris and London (though the term “impressionism” would only appear two years later).  European art was migrating towards a new visual language, and themes that would resonate with middle classes and the new rich of that time.

The same (age-wise) generation of artists in Russia was trying to find its own way in art. They had a much better academic training than their French counterparts, and also staged a mutiny against official art. French artists denounced the official Autumn Salon with its plump Venuses sporting erect nipples and sensual half-smiles, and Russians refused to participate in the Academic competition for the Grand Gold Medal of 1870 because they didn’t want to paint Odin’s Feast, and insisted on a free choice of their theme. That group of young Russian rebels was known as the Itinerants, because they thought up a new marketing mechanism to sell their work: exhibitions that would travel Russian cities on a certain itinerary.

The Russian artistic rebellion was not about the style of painting. It was primarily against the stupidity and immorality of continuing with Greek myths in a country suffering from innumerable social ills while trudging uphill, along the road of change and industrialisation.

Those young men believed art could change people if it enlightened them.

The belief that art can and should change people for the better has been a curse and a blessing of Russian art since then.

Now that we understand what an exciting time it was, we can appreciate the search of Kramskoy for a new Christ for Russian people, for his own Christ, for an image that would make people re-shape their religious habits (having more to do with tradition and social requirements than with Christ) into real Christian beliefs.

Ivan Kramskoy. Christ in the Desert (Christ went out to the desert on a 40 day fast, during which is was challenged and tempted by the Devil, without success for the horned embodiment of evil).


It is a painting that sums up Christ’s experience at the end of his journey. His clothes are torn, feet and hands are bruised and dirty; he is tired and desperate. He has rejected the Devilish temptations, but at this moment his desperation is almost as heavy as his belief on the scales of his soul.

He faces the night, and there’s a pink dawn behind his back that he doesn’t see. The viewer can see Christ’s desperation, and resolution, and pain, but also the dawn at the back. So, the viewer knows there’s going to be new life, new humanism, new everything. It is like getting a problem to solve at a math exam when you remember solving the very same problem the day before. You, the viewer, know the answer.

When you look at this painting, you’re having more faith inside yourself than Christ is having himself.

Isn’t it truly amazing? But even if you signed up to different religion or decided to become the god-irritating atheist, you can still appreciate some hidden artistic qualities of this work.

There is a detail in this painting overlooked by art critics (and many viewers), which makes the whole painting not just a philosophic or religious, but an artistic marvel.

This is a very early dawn. The sun is not out yet. The skies are clear. Christ faces the night side. The night side still has to have the moon in it. With the dawn happening behind Christ’s back, you can’t really paint the already weakening moon, that is bound to lose its battle with the dawn. 

So, Kramskoy paints the effects of the moon. Look at the foreground. Do you see sparkles on the stones?

I’ll zoom it up.

Крамской. Деталь.

No, it is not the light coming from the dawn. It is the moon fighting the sunlight, but losing the battle. Those are the last diamonds of the moonlight temptingly scattered around, and winking out, one by one.

As I often say, Russian art is like onion. It can be peeled layer after layer, endlessly. The good thing is that – unlike onion peeling – it is an enjoyable, no-tears experience. Unless, of course, you get too much involved into it emotionally. In that case, the end result is very similar to a tear-gas grenade.

Finally, to fully appreciate the difference between what I think is Art and Useless Expenditure of Paint, Punishable by Tearing the Artist’s Arms Off, look at this version of Christ in the Desert, by a contemporary artist.

16Christ of the Desert

You can feel the difference, right?

Thank you, the Daily Post for the Dawn theme. Sometimes, a prompt is all you need to complete a post that grew weary being put off.

Watching, not looking at

We watch films, but we look at paintings. Language itself reflects both the difference between something moving and still, and a fundamental problem with art appreciation.

Few people, having looked at a painting, are able to accurately describe what they saw in it five minutes later. What were you looking at, then?

And today, I really want you to look at this painting by Van Gogh in the way you’d watch a film. If you come to Paris, go to Musee Rodin, not only for an inspirational walk through its park , but for a few minutes in front of this “Arles view across a wheat field”.

This is a low-resolution version of the painting, but you can get a hi-res version here.

When I have an unsuspecting friend with me in front of this picture, I ask him or her to study it, then turn their back on it and ask them to show on an A4 sheet of paper where exactly the steam engine was located. People (almost) never get it right, and as you read on, you’d understand why.

Why is this a great painting, and what is in there that may cause the effects I described.

First, let’s look at how the painting is “organised”.

I used two horisontal lines to separate it into “zones”. We have the foreground of an empty field, the middle ground with two harvesters (I additionally split it into the harvested strip of wheat and the harvesters themselves) and the far ground with a train and the skyline of Arles.

We don’t see much in the yellow square of the foreground. That is, at first glance.

In the mid ground we have a yellow strip. Yellow colour is the brightest and the fastest to catch the eye. Thanks to this, our eye is first drawn there, to this yellow strip. The eye almost “runs” up there through the mown field taking our body with it.

The strip is shaped as a wedge, adding further direction to the eye. It makes us feel that the harvesters are moving to the right, in the direction opposite the train.

Then, the third part gives us a distant town. You’d think a very different palette was used for that part of the painting.

So, what do we have now?

A mown field with a big hay/wheat stack in the corner. A strip of wheat whose life expectancy is about 30 minutes because the farmers seem to be very intent on finishing their job today: trains, sunsets, romantic skyline views would not distract them. And a romantic skyline of a beatiful town, which is almost cut off from us by the train.

Oh, there are some factories on the left side. It is very good that you noticed them. Most romantic people never do.

Now that we know what was painted, let’s study the dynamics of the picture: what and where is moving, going, walking, or running and which directions Van Gogh wanted our eye to follow:

In mid and far ground the movement is horizontal. Wind goes left to right (as illustrated by the smoke). The farmers go left to right and almost collide with the train speeding to the left.

In the foreground the brushstrokes and the stacks help the eye to move upwards.

Well then. Why did Van Gogh added the foreground, if he wanted our eye to go immediately to the farmers? He could have used that part of the canvas for something else, and he had a dreadful shortage of materials. The painting would look like this:

We would still have the farmers, the industry, the train, the city. We would still have our conflict, contrapunto. The traditional and the new. The farmers and city life. Factories against agriculture. The train is cutting the natural and clean world of farmers from the artificial and dirty world of cities and factories. Almost bucolic and sweet if you don’t mind the factory pipes (and, in fact, many viewers don’t notice them).


Because Van Gogh did not want to illustrate the conflict which the viewer would watch effortlessly and without passion.  He wanted the viewer to take an active part in this conflict. He wished the viewer were on the side of the farmers in this conflict.

In fact, the foreground is not empty at all. Van Gogh loved changing flats into post-earthquake landmasses. We know today that many of the hills or uneven fields he painted never existed. In reality they are perfectly flat. Look at the curves Van Gogh created in this yellow square.

I highlighted just a few of them, for the maze he created is quite confusing. And it is this confusion that makes the eye travel back to the foreground (after it skidded all the way up). The brain wants to sort it out. And then resigns, confounded. That’s why people forget where the steam engine was. The viewer’s brain gets busy with sorting out other things.

But why did Van Gogh want us to come back to the foreground? Because he wanted us to walk, to feel the earth, the land. To feel the stubble under our soles. To linger there, be there, with the farmers. To be on their side, not the train’s or the factories’.

Is this a landscape then? Or a scene of the battle between nature and industry in which Van Gogh wants us to take part on the side of nature? I find it hard to classify this painting. Just as hard as to move away from it.

If you liked this post, you’d love a story about the conflict in Van Gogh portaits, What it is and where to find it!