Recently I read with interest Peter Schjeldahl’s piece on Renoir in The NewYorker, (“Skin Deep”, Aug. 26, 2019) and discovered with relief that I was not alone in finding Renoir’s nudes to be puzzling. Those skin surfaces, as smooth and featureless as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade inflatable, had always troubled me. The article prompted me to think again about those huge thighs and buttocks (were his models really that large?) matched with the tiny facial features scrunched up in one corner of the face, framed with luxurious tresses – it all seemed bizarre to me.
It seems that even Renoir's models were surprised at the images he produced, and were puzzled at how little they resembled the sitters.
After reading Schjeldahl’s comments it occurred to me that these chocolate-box colors, this cheesecake presentation, were enmeshed with the exaggerated size of the hips and groin. The effect is to emphasize the genital area – the very area that soft porn wishes to draw our attention to. Renoir, surely, delivers a version of soft porn, but by exaggerating the areas of sexual interest he also subverts the male gaze, asking, as it were, “Is this what you want? Really?” It’s a balancing act of superb perception.
Perhaps that is his true genius.