In October 1881, not long after he finished his joyous Luncheon of the Boating Party , probably his best-known work and certainly one of the most admired paintings of the past 150 years, Pierre-Auguste Renoir left Paris for Italy to fulfill a long-standing ambition. He was 40 and already acclaimed as a pioneer of Impressionism, the movement that had challenged French academic painting with its daring attempts to capture light in outdoor scenes. Represented by a leading gallery and collected by connoisseurs, he filled the enviable role of well-respected, if not yet well-paid, iconoclast.

His ambition that fall was to reach Venice, Rome, Florence and Naples and view the paintings of Raphael, Titian and other Renaissance masters. He was not disappointed. Indeed, their virtuosity awed him, and the celebrated artist returned to Paris in a state approaching shock. “I had gone as far as I could with Impressionism,” Renoir later recalled, “and I realized I could neither paint nor draw.”

The eye-opening trip was the beginning of the end of the Renoir most of us know and love. He kept painting, but in an entirely different vein—more in a studio than in the open air, less attracted to the play of light than to such enduring subjects as mythology and the female form—and within a decade Renoir entered what is called his late period. Critical opinion has been decidedly unkind.

As long ago as 1913, the American Impressionist Mary Cassatt wrote a friend that Renoir was painting abominable pictures “of enormously fat red women with very small heads.” As recently as 2007, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith bemoaned “the acres of late nudes” with their “ponderous staginess,” adding “the aspersion ‘kitsch’ has been cast their way.” Both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City have unloaded late-period Renoirs to accommodate presumably more significant works. In 1989, MOMA sold Renoir’s 1902 Reclining Nude because “it simply didn’t belong to the story of modern art that we are telling,” the curator of paintings, Kirk Varnedoe, said at the time.

“For the most part, the late work of Renoir has been written out of art history,” says Claudia Einecke, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Renoir was seen as an interesting and important artist when he was with the Impressionists. Then he sort of lost it, becoming a reactionary and a bad painter—that was the conventional wisdom.”

If the mature Renoir came to be seen as passé, mired in nostalgia and eclipsed by Cubism and Abstract art, a new exhibition aims to give him his due. After opening this past fall at the Grand Palais in Paris, “Renoir in the 20th Century” will go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art February 14 and the Philadelphia Museum of Art June 17. The exhibition, the first to focus on his later years, brings together about 70 of his paintings, drawings and sculptures from collections in Europe, the United States and Japan. In addition, works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Aristide Maillol and Pierre Bonnard demonstrate Renoir’s often overlooked influence on their art.

On display are odalisques and bathing nudes (including Reclining Nude , now in a private collection), Mediterranean landscapes and towns, society figures and young women combing their hair, embroidering or playing the guitar. Quite a few are modeled on famous pieces by Rubens, Titian and Velázquez or pay homage to Ingres, Delacroix, Boucher and classical Greek sculpture. “Renoir believed strongly in going to museums to learn from other artists,” says Sylvie Patry, curator of the Paris exhibit. She paraphrases Renoir: “One develops the desire to become an artist in front of paintings, not outdoors in front of beautiful landscapes.”

Curiously, though expert opinion would turn against his later works, some collectors, notably the Philadelphia inventor Albert Barnes, bought numerous canvases, and major artists championed Renoir’s efforts. “In his old age, Renoir was considered by the young, avant-garde artists as the greatest and most important modern artist, alongside Cézanne,” says Einecke.

Take his 1895-1900 painting Eurydice . Based on a classical pose, the seated nude is endowed with disproportionately large hips and thighs against a diffusely painted Mediterranean landscape of pastel green and violet hues. “It was just this free interpretation of a traditional subject, this sense of liberty, that captivated Picasso,” Patry says. Eurydice was one of seven Renoir paintings and drawings Picasso collected, and, the curator adds, it was a likely inspiration for his 1921 canvas Seated Bather Drying Her Feet . (Despite attempts by Picasso’s dealer Paul Rosenberg to introduce them, the two artists never met.) Einecke remembers her art history professors dismissing Eurydice and similarly monumental Renoir nudes as “pneumatic, Michelin-tire girls.” She hopes today’s viewers will identify them with the classical mode that regarded such figures as symbols of fecundity—and see them as precursors of modern nudes done by Picasso and others.

Renoir’s late embrace of tradition also owed a great deal to settling down after he married one of his models, Aline Charigot, in 1890. Their first son, Pierre, had been born in 1885; Jean followed in 1894 and Claude in 1901. “More important than theories was, in my opinion, his change from being a bachelor to being a married man,” Jean, the film director, wrote in his affectionate 1962 memoir Renoir, My Father .

Jean and Claude Renoir were dragooned into service as models from infancy. For an 1895 painting, Gabrielle Renard—the family’s housekeeper and a frequent model—tried to entertain 1-year-old Jean as the rambunctious child played with toy animals. “Painting Gabrielle and Jean was not exactly a sinecure,” the artist quipped. Claude—who sat for no fewer than 90 works—had to be bribed with promises of an electric train set and a box of oil paints before he would wear a hated pair of tights for The Clown , his father’s salute to Jean-Antoine Watteau’s early 18th-century masterpiece Pierrot . (Years later, Picasso painted his son Paulo as Pierrot, although that work is not in the current exhibition.)

Renoir’s later portraits make little attempt to analyze the sitter’s personality. What most interested him was technique—specifically that of Rubens, whose skill with pigments he had admired. “Look at Rubens in Munich,” he told the art critic Walter Pach. “There is magnificent color, of an extraordinary richness, even though the paint is very thin.”

Renoir was also becoming less interested in representing reality. “How difficult it is to find exactly the point where a painting must stop being an imitation of nature,” he said late in his life to the painter Albert André, whom he served as a mentor. Renoir’s 1910 portrait of Madame Josse Bernheim-Jeune and her son Henry presents an expressionless mother holding her equally expressionless child. When she appealed to Auguste Rodin to persuade Renoir to make her arm look thinner, the sculptor instead advised the painter not to alter a thing. “It’s the best arm” you’ve ever done, Rodin told him. He left it alone.

Renoir, a sociable character with a sharp sense of humor, ran a lively household with his wife in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris. Claude Monet and the poets Stéphane Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud were among the dinner guests.

Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 1897, Renoir followed his doctor’s recommendation to spend time in the warmer climate of the South of France. He bought Les Collettes farm in Cagnes-sur-Mer in 1907. Renoir’s disease would slowly cripple his hands and, ultimately, his legs, but the “threat of complete paralysis only spurred him on to renewed activity,” Jean Renoir recalled. “Even as his body was going into decline,” Matisse wrote, “his soul seemed to become stronger and to express itself with a more radiant facility.”

In 1912, when Renoir was in a wheelchair, friends enlisted a specialist from Vienna to help him walk again. After a month or so on a strengthening diet, he felt robust enough to try a few steps. The doctor lifted him to a standing position and the artist, with an enormous exertion of will, managed to wobble unsteadily around his easel. “I give up,” he said. “It takes all my willpower, and I would have none left for painting. If I have to choose between walking and painting, I’d much rather paint.”

And so he did. In 1913, he announced he was approaching the goal he had set for himself after his trip to Italy 32 years before. “I’m starting to know how to paint,” the 72-year-old artist declared. “It has taken me over 50 years’ labor to get this far, and it’s not finished yet.” An extraordinary three-minute silent film clip in the exhibition captures him at work in 1915. Renoir grips his brush nearly upright in his clenched, bandaged fist and jabs at the canvas. He leans back, cocks an eye to peer at the painting, then attacks it again before putting the brush down on his palette.

It could not have been an easy time—his two elder sons had been wounded early in World War I, and his wife died that June. While millions were perishing in the trenches, in Cagnes, Renoir fashioned an Arcadia, taking refuge in timeless subjects. “His nudes and his roses declared to the men of this century, already deep in their task of destruction, the stability of the eternal balance of nature,” Jean Renoir recalled.

Auguste Renoir worked until the day he died, December 3, 1919. At the time, his studios contained more than 700 paintings (his lifetime total was around 4,000). To paint one of his final efforts, The Bathers , from 1918-19, he had had the canvas placed on vertical rollers that allowed him to stay seated while working in stages. “It’s a disturbing painting,” Patry says. The two fleshy nymphs in the foreground are “very beautiful and graceful,” she says, while the background landscape “resembles an artificial tapestry.”

Matisse anointed it as Renoir’s masterpiece, “one of the most beautiful pictures ever painted.” On one of his visits to Cagnes, he had asked his friend: Why torture yourself?

“The pain passes, Matisse,” Renoir replied, “but beauty endures.”

Longtime contributor Richard Covington writes about art, history and culture from his home near Paris.

Q and A: Irish Artist John Gerrard

Stand in front of a photograph. Now imagine standing inside it and viewing it as a slow, sweeping pan. That’s what Irish artist John Gerrard does with landscape images, using a combination of photography, 3-D modeling and gaming software. An exhibition of his work is at the Hirshhorn Museum until May 31. He spoke with the magazine’s Jeff Campagna.

Is your artwork a form of virtual reality? It is virtual reality. I’ve established a very formal space from which one can consider one’s surroundings. It’s a type of world, an unfolding scene.

Are your creations labor-intensive? Definitely. I collaborate with a team of specialists: a 3-D modeler, a programmer who crafts realistic shadows and reflections and a producer who then weaves it all together. It took up to a year for us to create some of the works at the Hirshhorn.

Do you play video games? I’m not a gamer. I studied sculpture and earned masters degrees in art and science. Within the science community, I heard talk about gaming engines and wondered, “What is that?” So someone sat me down and explained that it allows virtual scenes to be rendered in real time. I immediately began to see potential new applications.

Why are you drawn to the American West? The American landscape is interesting on lots of different levels. The Great Southern Plains are very well suited to be remade virtually because they are largely featureless. It has a very, very formal minimalist quality in and of itself. It almost looks synthetic to begin with. And, to me, the landscape—dotted with farms and oil fields—also represents the global trend of unrestrained, mass consumption.

Teaching Cops to See

Early one morning a bunch of New York City police officers, guns concealed, trooped into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Inside a conference room, Amy Herman, a tall 43-year-old art historian and lawyer, apologized that she hadn't been able to provide the customary stimulant. "I usually try to give you coffee with plenty of sugar to make you talk more," she said.

The officers, all captains or higher in rank, were attending "The Art of Perception," a course designed to fine-tune their attention to visual details, some of which might prove critical in solving or preventing a crime. Herman laid out the ground rules. "First, there are two words that are not allowed—'obviously' and 'clearly'—since what's obvious to you may not be obvious to someone else. Second, no reading of labels. For purposes of this exercise, we are not focusing on who the artist was, the title of the work or even when it was created. Third, I want hands back, no pointing. If you want to communicate something, you have to say, 'Up in the left-hand corner, you can see...' "

Herman did not want to talk about brush strokes, palettes, texture, light, shadow or depth. Schools of painting and historical context were moot. Suspecting that some of the cops were first-timers to the Met, she tried to ease the pressure. "Remember," she said, "there are no judgments and no wrong answers."

She showed slides of paintings by James Tissot and Georges de La Tour. There was an Edward Hopper in which a hatted, forlorn-looking woman sits alone at a table, sipping from a cup.

"OK, what do we see here?" she said.

"A woman having a cup of coffee," answered one of the cops.

"Unlike us," another said.

Herman said, "Do we know it's coffee?"

"If it was tea, there would be a spoon."

"Or a pot, like in England."

A Caravaggio appeared on the screen. In it, five men in 17th-century dress are seated around a table. Two others stand nearby, and one of them, barely discernible in shadow, points a finger—accusingly?—at a young man at the table with some coins.

Among the officers a discussion arose about who robbed whom, but they soon learned there could be no verdict. No one was being accused or arrested, Herman said. The painting was The Calling of St. Matthew , and the man in the shadow was Jesus Christ. The cops fell silent.

Later, Deputy Inspector Donna Allen said, "I can see where this would be useful in sizing up the big picture."

Herman led the students upstairs into a gallery. The cops split into two- and three-person surveillance teams, each assigned to a particular artwork.

One team huddled in front of an enormous painting in which a heavily muscled man with close-cropped hair was being manhandled by a throng of armored ruffians and a buxom woman who was tearing off his shirt.

Robert Thursland, a 52-year-old inspector who looked trim and corporate in his gray suit, gave the class the skinny. The painting appeared to depict the end of a trial, and the muscle-bound fellow was "possibly being led off to be tortured," said Thursland. The woman tugging at his clothes was part of the lynch mob, he added.

Herman revealed that the officers had been scrutinizing a 17th-century Guercino painting of Samson after his capture by the Philistines—the woman, of course, was Samson's lover and betrayer, Delilah. That corroborated suspicions in the room as to victims and perps, and everyone seemed to agree the case could be closed.

In another gallery, a squat Congolese power idol, embedded with nails and gouged with holes and gaping gashes, appeared to be howling in pain. "When you came through these doors," Herman said, "what struck you about him?"

Assistant Chief George Anderson, who commands the Police Academy, said with a sigh, "First thing I thought, 'Boy, this guy caught a lotta flak. I kinda felt it was me.'"

Back in the conference room, Herman had the group pair up and take seats. One person faced forward while the other sat with his or her back to the screen. The officers who could see the pictures described them to their partners. One slide showed the well-known 1970 photograph of a teenage girl at Kent State kneeling beside a student who has been shot by the National Guard.

Anderson told his backward-facing partner: "The woman is obviously distraught."

Ms. Herman scolded, "Uh-oh, I heard an 'obvious' out there!"

"Oops!" he said. "That's the second time I did that."

Another photograph showed two couples standing side by side. Herman cautioned that neither should be identified by name, only by body language. The consensus was that the younger couple looked happy, playful and brimming with enthusiasm, while the older couple seemed stiff, worried and ill at ease.

Eyeballing the older couple, Thursland offered, "They don't know where they're gonna be living come January. "

They were George and Laura Bush; the younger couple, Barack and Michelle Obama.

Herman, who grew up in Somerset, New Jersey, and earned a master's degree in art history as well as a law degree, began her career as an attorney in a private firm. But after a while her lifelong love of art held sway, and she went on to manage programs at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, assist the director of the Frick Collection in Manhattan and give lectures on 19th-century American and French paintings at the Met (which she still does). She's currently the director of educational development for the New York City public television station WNET. She began teaching her three-hour "Art of Perception" course at the Frick in 2004, to medical students at first. Then, over pizza one night with a friend who wondered why Herman limited her students to future physicians, Herman recalled a harrowing experience she had had while studying law at George Washington University.

Assigned by a professor to accompany police on patrol runs, she had raced with two cops to the scene of a raucous domestic dispute. Standing on the landing below, Herman watched one officer bang on an apartment door while the other nervously fingered his handgun. What the first officer saw when the door opened—a whining child, say, or a shotgun-toting madman—and how he communicated that information to his partner could have life-or-death consequences, she realized.

The following Monday, Herman made a cold call to the New York City Police Academy to pitch her course. And four months later, she was teaching NYPD captains at the Frick. One comment she remembers was an officer's take on Claude Lorrain's 17th-century painting Sermon on the Mount , in which a crowd gazes up at Jesus. "If I drove up on the scene and saw all these people looking up," the cop said, "I'd figure I had a jumper."

Herman, speaking to the class I attended, underscored the need for precision by recounting the murder of a woman whose body was not found for more than a year, partly, according to news reports, because of a commander's vague instructions about where to look for it.

Anderson, who is often called to crime scenes, took the lesson seriously. Instead of ordering detectives generally to "search the block" for shell casings, weapons or other evidence, he said he would now tell them specifically to start at the far end, work their way back to the near end, look under all the parked cars, behind the gated areas, in the shrubbery, in the garages and in the trash cans.

One of Herman's graduates, Lt. Dan Hollywood, whose last name seems well-suited to his Jimmy Stewart-like demeanor, said her pointers have helped snag pickpockets, handbag snatchers and shoplifters who prowl the Times Square area. Hollywood coordinates the Grand Larceny Task Force of 24 plainclothes officers. "Instead of telling my people that the guy who keeps looking into one parked car after another is dressed in black," he explained, "I might say he's wearing a black wool hat, a black leather coat with black fur trim, a black hoodie sweatshirt and Timberlands."

New York's finest aren't the only law-enforcement types to benefit from Herman's teaching. Other students have included U.S. Secret Service agents and members of the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, the Strategic Studies Group of the Naval War College, the National Guard and, during a visit to London, the Metropolitan Police of Scotland Yard.

Perhaps the most vivid illustration of art's crime-fighting power involved a task force of federal, state and local officers investigating mob control of garbage collection in Connecticut. One FBI agent went undercover for 18 months, and during that time, as it happened, attended one of Herman's classes at the Frick. According to Bill Reiner, the FBI special agent who heads the task force, Herman's exercises helped the undercover agent sharpen his observations of office layouts, storage lockers, desks and file cabinets containing incriminating evidence. The information he provided led to detailed search warrants and ultimately resulted in 34 convictions and government seizure and sale of 26 trash-hauling companies worth $60 million to $100 million.

"Amy taught us that to be successful, you have to think outside the box," said Reiner. "Don't just look at a picture and see a picture. See what's happening."

Herman has taken her lessons to heart. When her 7-year-old son, Ian, was in preschool, his teacher worried that he wasn't verbal enough and suggested that Herman try some of her exercises on the boy. Herman pressed him to describe in detail what he saw when they were at home or on the street. "It worked!" Herman says. "We started talking about all the things we see and why we think they look that way, and he hasn't stopped talking since."

She encounters frequent reminders of her pedagogy's impact. While riding the subway not long ago, Herman noticed two burly men giving her the eye. They were unshaven and dressed in shabby attire. They made her nervous, and she got ready to get off the train at the next station.

Then one of the men tapped her on the elbow. "Hey," he said, "we took your course. We're cops."

Neal Hirschfeld 's latest book, Dancing With the Devil , the true story of a federal undercover agent, will be published next year. Photographer Amy Toensing is based in New York City.

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