Albert C. Barnes fell in love with the paintings of Pierre-Auguste Renoir at first sight.
"I am convinced I cannot get too many Renoirs," he wrote to fellow collector Leo Stein, brother of Gertrude, in 1913. This was only a year after Barnes began to assemble the magnificent art collection now housed at the Barnes Foundation in Merion.
The world knows how the irascible doctor's passion played out - in 181 Renoirs, the largest group by the artist anywhere. And of those, about 85 percent belong to what many scholars consider to be the artist's late period, roughly between 1890 and his death in 1919.
Remarkably, according to Barnes curator and Renoir specialist Martha Lucy, about half the foundation's Renoirs date from the last decade of his life. Clearly Barnes regarded these works, made when the artist's hands were gnarled by arthritis, as something special.
Why? Because Barnes believed that in old age Renoir achieved a rare mastery over form, light, and color. Even more heretical, he considered Renoir to be a wellspring of modern art, on a par in his influence on younger artists with his friend Cezanne, whom Barnes also admired.
Many critics, scholars, and collectors have rejected this apotheosis, and still do. Dissenters consider Renoir's late pictures, especially his zaftig, roseate female nudes, to be an old man's sentimental indulgence, or worse.
Beginning Thursday, Philadelphians will be able to decide the question for themselves when a traveling exhibition dedicated to late Renoir opens at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. With the estimable Barnes collection nearby, Philadelphia becomes, for the summer, Renoir City, the perfect venue for a serious evaluation of the artist's final flowering.
Organized by the French National Museums and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with involvement by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the show of 92 works - 78 by Renoir, the rest by artists who admired him - poses a stern test of Barnes' thesis.
Joseph J. Rishel, the Art Museum's curator of European painting and sculpture before 1900, is already persuaded.
"Barnes was right to love Renoir as much as he loved Cezanne," he exclaimed during a conversation about the show.
(Well, actually, a lot more; Barnes acquired "only" 69 Cezannes. And, as he proclaimed in his book on Renoir, he considered Renoir the more well-rounded painter: "He has achieved a union of expressive force and decorative richness unprecedented in plastic art.")
Rishel and associate curator Jennifer A. Thompson, who's responsible for coordinating the Philadelphia version of the exhibition, pointed out that Renoir had been highly respected in his lifetime by artists with impeccable modernist credentials - Henri Matisse, in particular, but also Pablo Picasso, Pierre Bonnard, and Aristide Maillol, among others.
"For these artists, Renoir was the grand old man, held in high esteem," Thompson said.
Because posterity hasn't agreed with them, Rishel added, an exhibition that affirms Barnes' point of view, which was shared by Leo Stein and avant-garde critics such as Roger Fry, has to be regarded as "subversive."
With the public, Renoir's reputation rests primarily on his impressionist pictures; his 20th-century figure paintings, the heart of "Late Renoir," have been treated less kindly.
It's one thing to reassess Renoir's late paintings on their own merits, but to accept him as a closet modernist, Cezanne's close comrade-in-arms? That seems to be the truly subversive aspect of this project. Yet, according to Lucy, this argument is perfectly logical in Barnes' universe.
"His idea is that modern art is not just a break with the past but a continuation of the past," she explained. "Renoir is looking at Titian and Rubens, but he's also a bridge between the old and the new."
During the early years of the last century, Cezanne and Renoir, who respected each other, were working against impressionism, "trying to return solidity to representation," Lucy continued. "Barnes wanted to show both of them as fathers of modernism, and he constantly demonstrated this by hanging them together."
This is the critical dimension of "Late Renoir" that must be experienced at the Barnes Foundation, which doesn't lend and where the distinctive wall ensembles, arranged by Barnes, never change. If you haven't before noticed the many conjunctions of Renoir and Cezanne there, you'll certainly notice them now.
In the ground-floor main gallery, for instance, Bathers from 1916, Barnes' favorite Renoir, hangs between two Cezannes, while a Renoir reclining nude hovers overhead. Lucy suggested that Matisse had been influenced by a figure in Bathers when painting the lunette mural called La Danse, installed in the same room.
Even more striking are a pair of bathers, one by each artist, hanging together in the adjacent Gallery Eight.
Like Rishel and Thompson, Lucy is convinced that Barnes "got it right" when he promoted Renoir as a modernist. "Picasso collected the late stuff, and Matisse absolutely revered late Renoir, and visited him constantly," she said. "If Matisse and Picasso were looking at this guy, there's something there we're not seeing."
Although the Art Museum isn't a full partner in organizing the exhibition, it is, surprisingly, the largest individual lender, with 12 works. The museum's Renoir holdings comprise 52 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper.
The museum's interest in the artist dates to 1933, when it mounted the first solo show for him in the United States. Three other Renoir shows followed over the decades, the most recent being one of landscapes in 2007.
From 1937 to 1954, the museum stored 50 late Renoirs owned by Parisian Philippe Gangnat. The storage agreement allowed the museum to exhibit the paintings, which it did in 1938 in a show titled "Renoir: The Later Phases."
Given that the term "late Renoir" is chronologically flexible (the Paris version of the current show began with 1892, while the catalog, to which Lucy contributed an essay, is titled Renoir in the 20th Century), what can visitors expect to see?
Generally, they will discover a style of painting that lies somewhere between the atmospheric shimmer of impression and the hard-edged neoclassical figuration that Renoir tried during the 1880s. The Art Museum's The Large Bathers of 1884-87 is a prime example of his moving away from the atmospheric fuzziness of impressionism while retaining its luminous energy.
The later works, primarily portraits and nudes, are a compromise between these extremes. They revel in impressionist color, but, as Lucy noted, the forms are solid and grounded. In a sense, they move beyond impressionism by looking back toward Renaissance and baroque styles.
In part, appreciation of "Late Renoir" depends on personal taste. Even if you have found acres of fleshy nudes cloying, you should try to see the paintings through Barnes' eyes. As Rishel noted, "He does have a true point of view" - not popular, perhaps, but well worth taking seriously.
"Late Renoir" continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through Sept. 6. Exhibition hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. Fridays, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. (The building opens at 10 weekdays.) The museum will open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on two Mondays, July 5 and Sept. 6.
Admission is by dated and timed ticket, $24 for general, $22 for seniors, $20 for students and visitors ages 13 to 18, and $14 for visitors ages 5 to 12. Discounted tickets at $19 are available through July 16 for 3 and 3:30 p.m. weekdays. Tickets can be purchased at the museum, by phone (215-235-7469), or online (www.philamuseum.org). Service charges apply to phone and online orders. Information: 215-763-8100, 215-684-7500, or www.philamuseum.org . Consult the website for related programs.
The Barnes Foundation, 300 N. Latchs Lane, Merion, is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays through August. Admission is $15; reservations are required and can be made online (www.barnesfoundation.org/) or by telephone (610-667-0290). Private tours of the Renoir collection will be given at 3 p.m. Tuesdays, June 22 through Aug. 31, at $75 a person ($65 for foundation members).