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Renoir’s impressionist art

Renoir's painting Bathers with Crab

Many artforms have an element of noisiness of some kind. There are varieties of music, as well as film, theatre, modern dance and opera. Even classical ballet, which is visually based on movement and mime, is driven by a musical score. All of those artforms would be unimaginable without their particular forms of sound. Even ‘silent’ movies had a musical score performed live in the cinema at every screening.

The art of noisy noiselessness

Painting and sculpture are different, being two key artforms that are silent by nature. Sculpture is three dimensional and visual from many angles. It can sometimes involve physical touching in the experience of the sculpture, as with the huge metal rhino standing in the forecourt of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. But painting is different, being two dimensional, fragile and visual from front-on – and there’s always that finger-wagging sign, ‘Do Not Touch.’

Despite the physical limitations and noiselessness of paintings, sometimes artists do try to create an imaginary impression or the suggestion of sound. Probably the most famous ‘noisy’ painting is ‘The Scream’ (1895) by the Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch. It’s a wild, swirling vision of horrific trauma – but mimed trauma, because in reality there is no sound, except for the violent and terrifying noise that we are driven to imagine for ourselves.

Renoir’s masterclass of impressionistic technique

‘The Scream’ aside, the sounds suggested in paintings need not be traumatic or even dramatic. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, the prolific French Impressionist artist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, often painted scenes infused with visions and implied sounds of gaiety and joy. Over a long career spanning five decades, Renoir created thousands of artworks, most famously of convivial and relaxed social gatherings, such as dances and boating parties, where laughter and light-hearted chatter can readily be imagined by the viewer.

As a style of painting, Impressionism was not concerned with photo-realism or with hiding brush strokes. Instead, the idea was to create a sense – or impression – of colour, light and movement, with dabbed, feathered or swirling brush strokes often deliberately highly visible. In that sense, Renoir’s painting from around 1890, ‘Bathers with Crab’ is a masterclass of Impressionist technique as applied to landscape, seascape and the female nude. The colours all over the canvass are luminous and the scene is under intense unfiltered sunlight with barely a shadow. As for movement, the sky and sea are swirling, as are the leaves on the tree and what we might assume to be a white petticoat being vigorously flapped at the top right. Even the rocks and sandy soil seem to be in motion.

The sight-lines of the young women and the small but intense slash of red tell us that the centre of attention is the crab that’s being waved about – and, more particularly, the reactions that the crab is creating. Some of those reactions are highly visual, while we are prompted to imagine for ourselves the comedic sound effects of mock-panicked, shrieking laughter. It’s a painting that is both technically soundless yet joyously and innocently noisy at the same time. As viewers, it’s difficult not to raise a smile as we engage with the noisy happiness of this bright, fleeting moment in time.

With Renoir’s paintings having such enduring and near universal appeal, his works are spread among private and public collections globally. ‘Bathers with Crab’ has its home at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh PA in the United States.

By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…

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