Art Imitates Art

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Bather Arranging Her Hair, 1885, oil on canvas. The Clark Art InstituteOne of my favorite paintings at the Clark Institute in Williamstown is Renoir’s Bather Arranging her Hair. The tasteful nude shows Suzanne Valadon, a model Renoir painted several times, sitting with her back to the artist and, well, arranging her hair.

Renoir has numerous paintings of nudes who are arranging their hair, bathing, drying off, standing up, sitting down — and even another painting called Bather Arranging her Hair. It was definitely a thing for him.

I like to imaging that the conversations between artist and model went something like this:

“Pierre — what shall I do, just sit here,” she’d ask. Renoir would scratch his head. “Oh, I don’t know — how about you arrange your hair.”

When I first saw this painting, it reminded me of something from my childhood. No, nude bathers arranging their hair was not part of my childhood, but one did appear in funny scene a movie that I loved: Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines.

Sure, “Frenchman painting a nude woman at he beach” is an old trope (for good reason), but I love the similarity between the painting and the scene in the movie. The inspiration is unmistakable. Nitpickers may point out that the Renoir painted Bather some 25 years before the movie is set in 1910, but c’mon, man.

You can imagine how naughty this part of the movie seemed to me, even as a little boy. It’s certainly 50+ years since I first saw it, but it all came rushing back to me as I stood in that room at The Clark which holds like a billion dollars worth of art. I hope the people nearby didn’t hear me giggle.

Side note: If you’ve never been to The Clark, you should plan a visit. It’s an amazing place, and admission is free until the end of March. Plus, if you go now you avoid the Berkshires summer throng, so there’s that.

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