One consequence of being the child of a great artist is that you will probably be enlisted as a model.
“Renoir: Father and Son/Painting and Cinema,” opening Sunday at the Barnes Foundation (through Sept. 3), includes several paintings of Jean Renoir, the second son of the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The earliest show him as a baby and a toddler, with luxuriant long red hair. One shows him in a red dress trying earnestly to sew.
But the most important shows him as a boy on the cusp of adolescence, wearing a blue suit and carrying a rifle in the pose of a huntsman. This is the one painting by his father that the younger Renoir kept all his life.
We know that Jean Renoir grew up not to be a hunter but as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. The aim of this show is to explore how the work of Renoir the filmmaker was influenced by the work of Renoir the painter — and the father.
The show contains some important Renoir canvases, but they are here to shed light on Jean Renoir’s cinema. It includes many film clips, a few fascinating, some frustratingly short, along with stills, costumes, scenery designs, and other documents of the cinematic process.
If you are not interested in film, this show — curated by Sylvie Patry, consulting curator at the Barnes and deputy director of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and organized by the two museums — is not for you.
But even those who, like me, love the work of Jean Renoir, are unlikely to feel fully satisfied. Emphasizing only the connections between the two artists’ work somehow diminishes them both. And because Jean Renoir’s movies, unlike his father’s pictures, were never meant to be looked at in short snippets while standing in an art gallery, they suffer more.
Hunter or hunted?
For example, the painting of Jean as huntsman hangs near a screen where a clip from his 1939 masterpiece The Rules of the Game is playing. The movie is about a lavish hunting party on a large estate that degenerates into a colossal brawl, which seems to have some connection to the huntsman image. However, the clip shows Jean Renoir, who acted in that movie as well as directed, doing a drunk scene.
What people remember of Renoir’s performance, though, is the scene where he is dressed up as a bear. Far from being the huntsman, he could be among the hunted.
Indeed, the scene from the movie that haunts me is the moment just when the hunt begins, and we see the panic and feel the vulnerability of the rabbits, birds, and other small game the boorish and decadent partygoers have come to blast away.
This sympathy for the prey is characteristic of the generosity and depth of feeling one finds in Renoir’s films. More important, these frightened helpless creatures offer an insight into the emotions of the intended audience for the film — Europeans on the brink of another world war.
There may be a connection between the picture of the boy dressed as a hunter and the great film about a hunting party this boy later made, but this exhibition does not show us what it is.
A closer connection
In a more direct link between one of the father’s paintings and one of the son’s films, the show features the elder Renoir’s famous painting The Swing (1876) from the Musee d’Orsay — a clear connection to Jean’s film A Day in the Country (filmed 1936, released 1946). In the movie, two boatmen drinking in a tavern look out the window and see a mother and daughter on a swing, then proceed to seduce them by taking them for a ride downriver.
Compared with the painting, in which there is little movement, the film literally places the viewer onto the swing with the women, as they lose their orientation and control. The cover of the show’s excellent catalog has a picture of the platform Renoir built onto the swing so that his huge, cumbersome camera could move with the same abandon as the women. The elder Renoir painted a woman and a swing; his son made the world swing, setting the stage for sexual abandon.
A clip from the 1959 film Picnic on the Grass makes another connection, this one with deep familial roots. It was filmed in and around the family home in southern France, a landscape in which young Jean spent much of his youth and which Pierre-Auguste often painted. It is both memory of a place and homage to a man.
In an interview being shown in the gallery, Jean says that the film is not about painting but has a lot to do with his father. The clip shown is about voyeurism, a man spying on a naked young woman. What makes people uncomfortable about Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s late, fleshy nudes is their blatantly voyeuristic quality. Jean Renoir shows us both the watched and the watcher.
There is little question that the connection between father and son was profound and powerful, if not always artistic. When Jean returned wounded from World War I, he lived with his father and produced ceramics that, he said, had only one buyer, Albert Barnes of Philadelphia. More important, he met his father’s last model, Andrée Heuschling, whose skin, the elder Renoir believed, “took the light” better than any model he had ever worked with.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir died in December 1919, and his son and his model were married a month later. Jean said he started to make films because his new wife wanted to be a movie star. Some of these early films are here, and what’s shocking is the seeming transformation of her body. Being painted by Renoir seems to have added 25 lbs. to her appearance. In the films, she is lithe and modern. The films are stagey, and — worse — arty but are fascinating to see.
In order to pay for these films, Jean started selling some of the many paintings his father bequeathed to him, a pattern that continued for the rest of his life until all but the huntsman portrait were gone. Thus the career of Renoir the filmmaker was literally made possible by the work of his father the painter. And later in life, when the paintings had run out, Jean Renoir wrote a memoir and evoked his father’s memory even more strongly.
In a filmed interview shown in the gallery, Jean Renoir says a painter is just one person, digging a little hole, who has the power to go very deep. He contrasts that with the cumbersome, collaborative, and expensive process of filmmaking, whose technology, he argued, prevents such depth of feeling. He doesn’t say it, but his work as a filmmaker has breadth, generosity, and nuance difficult to find in his father’s work.
The show made me want to see the films again and catch up with some I have missed. A lot of them are available to stream. Jean Renoir’s famous father is perhaps the least interesting thing about him.
Renoir: Father and Son / Painting and Cinema
May 6-Sept. 3 at the Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy. Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Monday (closed Tuesdays). Admission: $30, adults; $5, students and youth 13-18 (free for children under 13). Information: 215-278-7000 or barnesfoundation.org The Films of Jean Renoir: Lightbox Film Center at International House will show six Jean Renoir films during the exhibition's run. Information at ihousephilly.org/renoir