Art, Culture Wars, History, Women

In Praise of Renoir’s Male Gaze

Renoir took such presumptuous, slavering joy in looking at naked women.
~Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker

The Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir faces stern moral criticisms in Peter Schjeldahl’s recent New Yorker essay “Renoir’s Problem Nudes” for paintings deemed to be too adoring of women as soft fleshy creatures. On this basis, Schjeldahl argues, Renoir should be dismissed from canonical art. The evident pleasure Renoir took in painting female bodies represents his moral failure—the sexist and unethical “male gaze.” Renoir’s patriarchal attitudes, Schjeldahl writes, “may be worse than misogyny, which at least credits women with power as antagonists.” The scandal of Renoir’s nudes is that his canvases express his love of women’s bodies: “Sex and art figured for him as practically interchangeable rewards for living. An argument is often made that we shouldn’t judge the past by the values of the present, but that’s a hard sell in a case as primordial as Renoir’s.” The man evidently enjoyed the female form, and thought that sex and art were good things. What a monster.

Schjeldahl’s description of Renoir’s view of women is, of course, entirely correct. After all, Renoir is famously said to have remarked, “I paint with my prick.” But of the many comments Renoir is reported to have made about painting female nudes, one stands out as most expressive of the feelings we see on his canvases: “A painter who has a feel for breasts and buttocks is saved.” As a woman and a product of a recent liberal arts education, I am supposed to feel outraged by Renoir’s sexualization of women, and by the fact that he reduced them—and would have reduced me—to breasts and buttocks. But Renoir’s statement was not about sexual objectification, but about salvation. What does Renoir mean when he says “saved”?

In his essay deriding Renoir’s nudes, Schjeldahl cites the art historian Martha Lucy’s comment that Renoir has “come to stand for ‘sexist male artist.’” I had assumed that Lucy herself endorsed this view. Happily, I was wrong. In her lecture about the Clark Institute’s exhibition of Renoir’s nudes, it is impossible to miss Lucy’s love for the painter. So uncommon is it to see a scholar take delight in her subject matter, that Lucy’s lecture might seem, at times, to be unsophisticated, were it not for her expertise on the subject and deep understanding of the cultural movements that now cast Renoir in such a negative light.

Far from criticizing Renoir, Lucy critiques our modern way of seeing, our modern posture that distrusts sensuality and delight, pleasures now stigmatized. “The current Renoir aversion,” she states, “more than reflecting the actual goodness or badness of his art, reflects shifting cultural politics, a change in American art theory and practice, and a change in our attitude towards pleasure in art. Pleasure, once celebrated, now sets off alarm bells. It must mean kitsch, or misogyny, or bourgeois blandness, or, even worse, that we are not serious viewers of art.”

Lucy argues that the current cultural orthodoxy is a passing historical moment rather than the natural realization of our moral progress, and she defends Renoir’s works as occasions for unapologetic pleasure. Lucy challenges the assumption that Renoir’s paintings are instances of the objectification of women through the “male gaze,” but she does not interrogate the gaze itself. The male gaze, Lucy notes, is “really a theory about the power dynamics that are embedded in the very act of looking.” It is, above all, “a pleasure that belongs to the artist and the viewer rather than the people represented in the paintings.”

This gaze is, for Schjeldahl and many contemporary feminists, necessarily unethical because it turns women into passive objects and men into controlling subjects. Of course, those familiar with John Berger’s seminal 1972 text Ways of Seeing will know that the male gaze is not simply a way that men wield power over women, but that women use the gaze themselves as a way to gain power over men. If you haven’t read the book, a visit to any bar on a Saturday night will tell you much the same thing. What Schjeldahl has failed to appreciate is that the male gaze is not exclusively about power, but about the fantasy of having such power. The male gaze is the yearning of men to see the world as they wish to see it.

Schjeldahl’s objections to Renoir’s nudes are, on the one hand, that they do not cater to his gaze enough (which is a curious position to take if you’re critiquing the sexist attitudes of the painter), and, on the other, that Renoir painted the women who modelled for his nudes as he saw them. Renoir expresses, writes Schjedahl, an “indifference to the women as individuals with inner lives. They aren’t subjects, only occasions. (His models were often amazed at how little they recognized themselves in pictures that they had posed for.)” Here, Schjeldahl identifies one of the defining moral problems of our cultural moment, but it is not, as he thinks, the objectification of women via the male gaze. It is the notion that the way an individual sees her or himself is the way others too must see her or him.

This is what philosopher Matthew B. Crawford describes as “the sameness of mass solipsism rather than true individuality.” It is an expression of our need to differentiate ourselves from society by rebelling against it in some way, so that unrestrained individualism becomes our highest good. But unlike true rebels, we define our uniqueness by tearing off the restraints imposed upon us by society, and then require that same society to validate our rebellion and embrace our unique way of seeing ourselves. This way of seeing cannot be interrogated because it is an entirely inward and hidden experience. It is what Freud called infantile narcissism. The male gaze is passé; the inward-gaze is nouveau. It is an isolating way of seeing, and its results are anxiety and loneliness.

Feminism is especially culpable in its assertion that the “male gaze” is an instrument of sexual objectification and oppression. It can be this. Of course. But to suggest that it is only this is to cut ourselves off from each other and the social bonds that can occur when we let go of our infantile narcissism. To insist that men are wrong to see women in any way other than how they wish to be seen by men—that is, how women inwardly see themselves—prevents us from reaching a fuller understanding of ourselves that can only occur when we begin to see ourselves socially and relationally. But it is also an impossible task—how exactly are men to start seeing women as women see themselves?—and can lead men to feel resentment against women who feel the need to punish them for being, after all, just who they are.

Coincidentally, two weeks ago, just shortly after Schjeldahl’s essay came out, I was in Paris with a friend, visiting the Muse D’Orsay and taking cheerful, unsophisticated pleasure in Renoir’s art. As we were admiring an Impressionist work (in this case, a Degas), my companion turned to me and asked, “How would you like to be painted by one of these artists?” My spontaneous response was, “Never! To see myself as an artist might? No thank you.” I understand the discomfort our culture has about losing one’s sense of self-determined individuality. It would take courage and a true sense of individuality to see myself as an artist might see me. It’s a risk: what if I look hideous? Or have my faults exaggerated and displayed? It is also a risk to my sense of selfhood to see myself as a man might see me. What if I am an object for sexual fantasy? (What if I’m not?) It is in fact a risk to simply see myself as another individual might see me. But I think, upon reflection, that I would like to be painted. It would unsettle me. Good. Like all of us, I tend toward self-centeredness anyway. I would likely learn something new about myself by becoming the object of another’s gaze. I would also learn something about the gazer. Oscar Wilde reminds us that “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter.” It is the painter who reveals himself.

Contemporary feminism insists that men and the male gaze objectify women, thereby making men into the powerful, brutish, and oppressive monolithic force we commonly know as “The Patriarchy.” Yet the male gaze often reveals men’s vulnerable side. The way they see reveals not their power but their yearning; their desperate need for tenderness in a world that can be hard and unkind, and which turns men into cogs within the economic machinery. What hegemonic theory now sees as “worse than misogyny” is nothing more than the opposite of androgyny. Do we think the economic and political forces of this world view its producers gently, as fully formed subjects to be treated with kindness? The mountain of corpses and the catastrophe of history, otherwise known as the twentieth century, tell us a different story.

Schjeldahl objects to Renoir’s later nudes because they are painted with “brushstrokes like roving fingers.” Yet what we see on Renoir’s canvases are not instances of “primordial” sexism. Instead, they are a record of Renoir’s deep longing for the kind of soft touch that only a woman can give, a softness that the world of Renoir’s late nudes of 1910-1919 desperately needed as it tumbled into war and insanity. The paintings of buttery skin, of the ripples of yielding flesh, of the exuberant female bodies that, as Lucy points out, can barely be contained within the frame of his paintings, have nothing whatever to do with the heart of a cold sexist or a slavering misogynist—they represent the aching assertion that beauty is good and abundant and real even in the midst of an ugly world.

Renoir’s nudes are the evidence of a tirelessly hopeful soul struggling against the dingy reality of the modern world, with its modern industry and its modern warfare, that turns all human flesh into disposable objects, without joy or humanity. These are paintings of yearning and of hope and through them Renoir can still instruct us, and breasts and buttocks may save us all.

 

Marilyn Simon is a Shakespeare scholar and university instructor. She is currently working on a book on Shakespeare, Eros, and Female Agency.

Comments

  1. Great article. A reflection on beauty, in some senses. But God!, why does modern, or should I say postmodern culture, have to be so whiny, narcissistic and above all, puritanical. It’s as though they want to squeeze every inch of pleasure and beauty out of this life, in the service of some droning, sanctimonious sermon. Is this really what the contemporary academic is required to do, to eke out a living from the cultural collection plate?

  2. It’s not all that new, @Geary_Johansen2020. There have always been those who spend their lives railing against human nature, but like Savonarola, they don’t usually come to good ends.

  3. But that’s what happens, Geary, when patriarchy let feminism have a free ride without any brakes or safety belts, back to the middle ages! Hahaha!

  4. “Here, Schjeldahl identifies one of the defining moral problems of our cultural moment,… It is the notion that the way an individual sees her or himself is the way others too must see her or him.”

    Astute observation and well said.

    Schjeldahl type men are the among the worst hypocrites. The true point of their criticism is to impress females with their sensitivity by acting as though they are above the fray. Heterosexual men are visual sexual creatures, who think about sex every other minute of the day. Ladies do you know why men don’t often share their thoughts? It is because they do not wish you to know what cads we truly are. If there were more honesty between men and women, conversations would go like this:

    Wife: “What are you thinking dear?”
    Husband: “I’m thinking our waitress has nice breasts.”
    What are men thinking? Golf, sex, pizza, beer, football, sex and occasionally Quillette. Renoir is the honest male in this article.

  5. Good article. Renoir, the erotic, commits the Primary Postmodern Mortal Sin - he takes a reality beyond himself seriously. Renoir is a lover; Schjeldahl only approves of masturbators.

  6. I sometimes wonder about this insanity. Is it like some self-destruction program built in humans? It’s truly amazing how suddenly heterosexuality is now seen as some toxic perversion. Also, I remember a time when the New Yorker was a great magazine, when I used to think “imagine being surrounded by so many intelligent people”. Now, it’s basically Morons Inc.

  7. Peter Schjeldahl and his ilk don’t disapprove of sex. They only disapprove of people they don’t like taking pleasure in anything. Thus the constant hectoring and signalling that certain things aren’t appropriate and should be cancelled. It’s the constant threat that somewhere, a deplorable might be enjoying Renoir’s nudes.

    Schjeldahl objects to Renoir’s later nudes because they are painted with “brushstrokes like roving fingers.”

    This is pure psychological projection on Schjeldahl’s part. This is what the paintings make him think, and this is unacceptable given his elite pedigree. Thus, he accuses us of having these feelings. Humans have long gotten rid of their bad feelings this way, and Schjeldahl is still one of us no matter how much he longs not to be.

  8. My god, I looked up Renoir’s nudes on Google. This is the cross the “male gaze” is being crucified on? They are so innocently PG they are at the level of the nudity in the G-rated Disney film Fantasia. *

    https://images.fineartamerica.com/images/artworkimages/mediumlarge/2/psyche-circa-1910-pierre-auguste-

    Even in the few where nipples are showing, I can’t see them.

    https://img.encore-editions.com/small-archival-canvas-20846-21243-fm400.jpg

    Don’t forget boys, the top centimeter of a woman’s butt-crack is the most pornographic part of a woman’s body…

    https://static.greatbigcanvas.com/images/singlecanvas_thick_none/everett-collection/great-sitting-nude-1912-by-pierre-auguste-renoir-sao-paulo-museum-brazil,2258528.jpg?max=1000

    If Renoir painted women in burkas he’d still be some sort of misogynistic Hitler for envisioning women as being repressed cattle, or some other crap. If he didn’t paint any women, he’d be some sort of sexist Stalin for ignoring women.

    Peter Schjeldahl is merely a stereotypical, run-of-the-mill male feminist Puritan looking for head pats.

    *I forgot. Fantasia is racist now. It is so racist that if you write “Fantasia ra” in the google search box, you get “Fantasia racism” autofilled and clicking on that brings up scores of sites with the same claim.

  9. Women gaze and objectify too otherwise trashy novels with six pack abs on the cover wouldn’t be doing a booming business and I wouldn’t need to wear sunglasses because the construction guys building a condo along my bike route are working shirtless :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

    Can we actually be allowed to enjoy life’s simple pleasure without the intersectional puritans turning them into mortal sins?

  10. …Of course, those familiar with John Berger’s seminal 1972 text Ways of Seeingwill know that the male gaze is not simply a way that men wield power over women, but that women use the gaze themselves as a way to gain power over men. If you haven’t read the book, a visit to any bar on a Saturday night will tell you much the same thing. What Schjeldahl has failed to appreciate is that the male gaze is not exclusively about power, but about the fantasy of having such power. The male gaze is the yearning of men to see the world as they wish to see it…

    What’s all this about the “male gaze”? I’ve visited plenty of bars on Saturday nights, Friday nights, on most nights of the week really. I’ve looked at women a lot. On occasion they’ve looked back at me. I try not to gaze at them; that’s not polite and it’s kind of crude. But I’m sure my looks such as they are come within the definition of the male gaze. It’s the women I find attractive at who I look at. Do I in my looking want to wield power over them? I think not. I’m doing what comes naturally: I’m checking out what looks good to me. And women in bars do the same thing. (By the way, this mutual looking goes on everywhere, all the time. I only mention bars because Simon invites me to go there.)

    Sure, by definition this looking has a big sexual aspect. But that’s how it goes in the world. We move toward what attracts us. That’s the meaning of attraction. And if the attraction leads to other things, then there’s no limit on the varieties or depths of that, from a one nighter to an asexual friendship to a relationship to even a partner for life, with infinite gradations among all of them. This is the world going round.

    So where’s wielding of power inherent in the looking? For some jerks that may be what it’s about but wielding power doesn’t inhere in the looking. The sexual part of the looking, the sexual attraction to physicality, to bodies, is one of the great and near-to-indispensable pleasures of life. But where in this necessarily is the assertion of, the longing for, power?

    What I know about visual art wouldn’t fill a thimble but if Renoir “painted with his prick,” used his art “to express his love of women’s bodies,” then more power to him. Women’s bodies in their way are as worthy a subject for painting as any other. We ought reject prescription in art. Who gifted wouldn’t want their art to express, represent, recreate, reflect and illuminate what they love? Who cares what some priggish ponce, here, Peter Schjeldahl—who dat?—caught up in our moment’s suppressive, feminist Puritanism, moralizes against? And while I appreciate what animates Simon’s fulsome defence of Renoir, does it really need all this attenuated and abstracted theorizing about the male gaze and the wielding of power?

    I think not: feet firmly on the ground, earthy common sense will do the job quite nicely, I argue.

  11. As the old calvinists used to say : All this sex will lead to dancing

  12. Much of what men do is done for the sole purpose of impressing women. Men like Renoir rebelled in more puritanical times by pushing the boundaries of decency and titillating women with his bad boy behavior. Schjeldahl is rebelling against the sexual revolution by espousing a Victorian attitude which he hopes will put him in the good graces of the feminists in his circle of influence. Men of the next generation will rebel against the puritanical sensibilities erected by Schjeldahl in order to attract women. It’s the pendulum. But it does prove the power women have over men, that they will go to any length to win the “female gaze.”

  13. It’s difficult to imagine that a man doesn’t understand that the male gaze is female power. As the author points out, women seek out the male gaze, particularly if they are young and beautiful, particularly on a Saturday night at the club. That she holds men enraptured, that she has her pick of the bunch, is a token of her power, a feeling most women are familiar with.

    When I was young and beautiful, I did a fair amount of nude modelling, and I was always keenly aware I held the power in the encounter much more than when it was a clothed shoot. Interestingly, the vast majority of the photographers I shot with were hard leftists: I wonder if they have now been cancelled over their “male gaze,” or if there is an exception for those who make the right noises about feminism and intersectionality?

  14. I have been privileged to have known a few women who considered sex a “reward for living.” I’m so grateful that they chose to objectify me.

  15. I wonder what the puritan prudes amongst the ‘‘progressives’’ would think of this male gaze.

    You have to remeber that knickers weren’t worn in 18th century France.

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