Nature’s Workshop: Renoir’s Writings on the Decorative Arts
by Robert L. Herbert
Yale University Press, 278 pp., $35.00
Think of Impressionism and the two names most likely to come first to mind are those of Monet and Renoir. And of all the Impressionist painters Renoir is the most seductive. He painted many of Impressionism’s most popular and memorable canvases. To name only three: The Theater Box (La Loge) of 1874, Ball at the Moulin de la Galette of two years later, and possibly the most celebrated of all, Luncheon of the Boating Party of 1880-1881. These paintings haunt and nourish the imagination in a way that individual works of Monet often do not. This is largely because Renoir was primarily a figure painter, and images of the human form alone or in the company of others are mostly easier to recall than landscapes, which, in the case of Monet—who came increasingly to concentrate on series of paintings of the same subject—tend to blur and blend into each other.
Monet’s serial method was inimical to Renoir’s thought processes; his writings suggest that he experienced difficulty thinking consecutively. But it was Monet, together with Sisley and to a lesser extent Pissarro, who remained truest to the vision of nature and external reality as a vehicle for changing effects of light rendered in broken, often broad and dappled brushwork. Renoir acknowledged Monet’s tenacity when, much later, he observed, “I have never had the temperament of a fighter and I should several times have deserted the party if old Monet, who certainly did have it, had not lent me his shoulder for support.” In the 1920s some critics rated Renoir higher than Monet. Yet today Monet stands among the dozen most revered and popular of nineteenth-century artists, and exhibitions of his work, or even of particular aspects of it, are sure-fire box-office hits. The work of Renoir’s Impressionist years continues to cast its spell among art lovers; but many have expressed reservations about aspects of his subsequent work, particularly that of his final years.
It has often been remarked that Renoir’s character and art can best be understood not so much in terms of paradox as in terms of contradictions. He himself never contradicted anyone and never took sides because he did not see life in black and white and accepted it as it came to him. He also acknowledged that “I’ve had ten different opinions on the same subject, according to the day and my mood.” He was of an anti-intellectual persuasion and saw himself, indeed, as being unintelligent. But he also claimed that good painting should possess serenity and be “the proof of supremacy of the mind.” His son Jean, the great film director, tells us that he read relatively little outside the established French classics. He knew Ronsard by heart (and this fits: Renoir felt at home with the measured grace of Ronsard’s verse) and loved Villon and Rabelais. He was socially awkward, yet he frequented the literary salon of Marguerite Charpentier—her husband, Georges, was a prominent publisher …