Three’s a Party at the Museum of Fine Arts

For the first time in two decades, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Dance at Bougival has been reunited with two of the artist’s other masterpieces, Dance in the Country and Dance in the City. The trio of full-length works portrays distinct variations of a dancing couple, stepping and spinning to the lively tune of music. You can almost hear the swish of the red-bonneted woman’s heavy skirt in Dance at the Bougival, and the laughter of the crowd gathered at the tables behind her.

These works are the focus of a small exhibition titled Dancing with Renoir, which opened last month at the Sidney and Esther Rabb Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts and will run through September 3. Dancing with Renoir is the third exhibition at the MFA to include a major loan from the world-renowned Musée d’Orsay in Paris since last July.

Despite the recent frequency of exhibitions created through a partnership between the two museums, the relationship is “far from a sudden eruption,” according to George T.M. Shackelford, former Chair of the Art of Europe at the MFA. Rather, it’s the result of a “long history” between the two institutions.

The MFA’s collection of 19th century French painting is one of the largest and most significant in the United States. It holds works by important Barbizon, impressionist, and post-impressionist artists, including such artists as Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. The Orsay primarily holds French art that dates from the Revolution of 1848 to the opening of World War I in 1914. It’s best known for its extraordinary holdings of impressionist and post-impressionist art. As a result, the two museums are “natural partners” says Xavier Rey, Curator of Paintings at the Orsay.

The trio of paintings featured in Dancing with Renoir is “the epitome of the complementary [nature of the] collections of the Musée d’Orsay and the MFA,” says Rey.

Dance in the Country and Dance in the City are both on loan from the Orsay. Conceived and created as a pair in the same year as Boston’s Dance at Bougival (1883), they provide a richer context for this treasure of the Boston collection.

The goal is to “enliven your appreciation of something that is your own city’s, your own museum’s paintings,” says Shackelford. Together, these works allow us to enter into the world of leisure in late 19th-century France.

Two of the works are set in open-air cafés. During Renoir’s time, young people would head to these places in droves on sunny days and dance away the afternoon. Small details — like the cigarette butts strewn across the floor in Dance at the Bougival, or the straw hat that sits idly on the floor in the corner of Dance in the Country, forgotten by its owner convey the merry-makers’ carefree abandon. The ballroom scene in Dance in the City is markedly different. The dancing pair is frozen in a graceful pose, and the ball-gown-clad woman looks demurely away from her elegant partner — a sharp contrast from the uninhibited frivolity of the other two works.

These works hadn’t been together in Boston since 1985, says Shackleford. “The chance to show them together, to a whole new generation of viewers, was too tempting to pass up.”

The continuous collaboration was inevitable, owing to the strength of Boston’s collection of late-nineteenth century Vanguard painting, says Shackelford.

“The Boston fascination with French painting began in the 1850s,” he explains. The acquisition of The Sower in 1854, an iconic piece by Millet, “caused a sensation in Boston that has never stopped.” Over the years, the MFA acquired many French paintings from this period.

Shackelford worked on many projects with the Orsay during his 16 years with the MFA. He co-organized Monet/Lichtenstein: Rouen Cathedrals, which opened at the museum last July. He also co-curated the major exhibition Degas and the Nude, which traced the development of the nude in Degas’s oeuvre. The project was one of the largest collaborations between the two museums in recent history. It featured 140 works by Degas, more than 60 of which were on loan from the Orsay. The exhibition traveled to Paris at the end of February, where it is currently on view.

It was also a highly personal project. Much of the exhibition’s planning took place in Boston, while Rey worked as an intern in the MFA’s Art of Europe department as part of his degree for the Institut National du Patrimoine in Paris.

“It was great fortune for me to work with George,” says Rey, who describes Shackelford as one of the foremost Degas scholars in the world.

However, the partnership between the institutions is larger than any two individuals.

“The relationship between the MFA and the Orsay predates the Orsay itself,” says Shackelford. Before the Orsay opened in 1986, the MFA worked with the Galerie Nationale de Jeu de Paume, which housed much of the Orsay’s current collection.

Shackelford describes the relationship as eternal. “I’m sure that there will be projects done with the Orsay in the future,” he says.

Currently, there are no immediate plans for collaboration, according to the MFA. Rey confirmed this statement when we spoke on the phone last week. But after a short pause, he added: “It might be time to have a common project on Millet.”