Scene Stealer

Any casual observer of art knows that just as Claude Monet made his name painting ethereal, color-rich landscapes, his great friend and contemporary Pierre-Auguste Renoir excelled at the spirited depictions of people. In "The Luncheon of the Boating Party" (1881), with its strong strokes and brash impasto, the patrons of a lakeside brasserie are caught in postlunch bliss. It was Renoir's ability to capture the essence of a moment among the varying strata of French society--from young girls with satin bows in their hair and couples dancing to circus jugglers and nomadic Arabs--that made him one of the most beloved impressionists of the era.

Yet Renoir also produced a vast collection of lesser-known landscapes. During the first two decades of his long career, the artist experimented with the genre's form and flow, which later informed his technique. Now an exhibition at London's National Gallery brings together for the first time 70 of these scene paintings. "Renoir Landscapes"--until May 20, then moving to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the Philadelphia Museum of Art--is arranged chronologically and includes cityscapes, seascapes and paintings from his time spent abroad and in France. Almost a quarter of the works are from private collections; "La Place St. Georges," a pastel cityscape with people milling under a tree in full blooming glory, has not been seen in public for more than 50 years. And "The Harvesters" is being loaned out only for the British part of the tour and then will go back to a private collection in Zurich. "This exhibition helps show Renoir teaching himself to be more daring as an artist," says Christopher Riopelle, the show's curator.

Among the highlights are the paintings done during his visits to Algeria. The North African locale seemed to inspire Renoir with a new joie de vivre; his work takes on an ease not seen in the more-contained European landscapes--a figurative unbuttoning of his stiff shirt collar in the coastal heat. In "Le Jardin d'Essai" (1881), Renoir paints a canopied walkway of bright palms, the tropical trees swaying invitingly against a deep blue sky and casting winsome shadows. (Interestingly, Monet's "Alley of the Gardens of Monet at Giverny," painted 21 years later, is strikingly similar and appears influenced by Renoir's perspective and shadow play.) In "Arab Festival" (1881), the white sun-bleached buildings of Algiers and the subtle calm of the blue sea offset the flurried action in the foreground, where a crowd is gathered to watch a group of musicians. It is a prime example of a popular Renoir theme: the way a vast range of personalities exists in a particular physical setting.

In the more-traditional European landscapes, Renoir experimented with ways to capture the reflection of sunlight off foliage. He plays with this effect in works like "Harvest at Berneval, 1880," where the blooming trees and rolling meadow of greens, whites and plums combine in glorious splendor. In the background, three figures--a man and two women working the field--are communing with nature, as integral to the landscape as the sunshine and grass.

Other works in the show, though not traditional landscapes, reveal how Renoir worked to develop this interplay between figures and their environment. "Claude Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil" (1873) is a study of his friend's trying to capture the summer light--something both men were captivated by. Though a touch sentimental, the painting not only memorializes Renoir's friendship with Monet but also reflects the artist's understanding of the importance of physical space that surrounds his fabulous portraiture.