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Museum of Fine Arts Boston (MFA) opens Dancing with Renoir

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) presents Dancing with Renoir, a glorious trio of full-length dancing couples painted by Pierre- Auguste Renoir, on view from May 19 to September 3. Renoir’s Dance at Bougival, one of the MFA’s most beloved treasures, will be reunited—for the first time in Boston since the MFA’s Renoir exhibition in 1985–86—with two of the artist’s masterpieces, Dance in the Country and Dance in the City, lent by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Conceived and executed as a pair in the same year as Dance at Bougival (1883), they offer a deeper context for Boston’s own work. These monumental paintings will be on view as part of the MFA’s Visiting Masterpieces series in the Sidney and Esther Rabb Gallery along with two additional works by Renoir from the MFA’s collection, The Seine at Chatou and Boating Couple, both created around 1881.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Seine at Chatou, 1881. Oil on canvas. Gift of Arthur Brewster Emmons. Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

“We are pleased to welcome these two paintings from the Musée d’Orsay to our galleries, where they will take a whirl on the dance floor with the MFA’s own magnificent couple in Dance at Bougival,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. “The Musée d’Orsay has generously given us the rare opportunity to share with our visitors these three extraordinarily beautiful works.”

Measuring approximately 6 feet tall, these paintings illustrate Renoir’s dedication to the life-size format, which he used to depict themes of leisure, movement, and fashion. They offer distinct variations on the theme of the dancing couple enjoying life in late 19th century France. Dance at Bougival, acquired by the MFA in 1937, is the first of the three he began and the last one he finished. In it, the woman, whose face is framed in a red bonnet, turns her gaze from her partner as they dance away the afternoon at an open-air café in Bougival, a popular recreation spot on the Seine just outside of Paris. With its intense color and lush brushwork, the painting captures the flavor of this casual summertime setting, where other guests are seen in the background and the floor is littered with cigarette butts. Renoir’s Dance in the Country also features a red-bonneted woman, albeit one seeming to more heartily enjoy the gaiety of the moment. She smiles directly at the viewer and holds a fan as she and her partner embrace and glide on the dance floor. Its pendant, Dance in the City, shows another couple posed similarly to the one in Dance in the Country, but the setting, appearance, and the mood are in marked contrast. As with the two other grand canvases, the woman here is the focus of this ballroom scene. Dressed fashionably in a sumptuous winter-white gown, with long gloves and perfectly coiffed hair, she dances with a formally attired man, her gaze directed away from him. Although the positioning of their bodies evokes the happy couple in Dance in the Country, their pose is elegant and restrained. Renoir’s three dancing couples will come to the MFA directly from The Frick Collection in New York City, where they were included in Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting, which ends on May 13 and has attracted record crowds.

The idyllic escapism of many of Renoir’s works is captured in his dance scenes featuring the lush settings that attracted many Impressionist painters to the countryside along the Seine. While the identity of the models in Dance at Bougival is debated by art historians, it is known that artists’ model Suzanne Valadon is the woman in Dance in the City, where she is pictured in the arms of Paul-Auguste Lhote, a friend of Renoir’s. In Dance in the Country, Lhote again portrays the man, this time dancing with Aline Charigot, who was Renoir’s lover, model, and eventually his wife. Charigot is also featured in Boating Couple, where she is seen in a flower-trimmed sun bonnet, sitting across from a straw-hatted man, presumably Renoir. The pastel depicts the pair either about to embark on a boat trip, or just returning from one.

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