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Renoir the Irregular

1.

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. There and at the Impressionist dinners held at the Café Riche he met, among other writers, Zola, Flaubert, Maupassant, and Edmond de Goncourt, and they appear to have had respect for him. Mallarmé became a close friend. But Renoir was basically shy and was worried about being thought a social climber.

He was a reactionary revolutionary. Initially he sought his subject in everyday life, and by the late 1870s was viewed by many as the principal painter of modern Paris, while revering most of the work of the old masters. His portrait Mme. Charpentier and Her Children of 1878, a big success at the Salon of 1879, to a certain extent tempered and tamed Impressionism, but it also helped to win the movement some of its battles and its eventual recognition. Proust wrote about the picture at some length in Le Temps retrouvé. Then, despite the fact that he was a purely instinctual painter, he wrote more extensively on art than any of his Impressionist colleagues. A collection of Renoir’s writings on the decorative arts, many of them hitherto unknown, has just been published under the title Nature’s Workshop: Renoir’s Writings on the Decorative Arts. To these I will return.

Renoir was born in Limoges in 1841. His father was a tailor and his mother a dressmaker. His paternal grandfather had been a cobbler. Renoir was proud of this background, and clung to it even when he had achieved fame and fortune. In 1844 the family moved to Paris, taking up rooms in the old quarter by the Louvre, soon to be demolished to make room for the new Paris being created by Baron Haussmann at the urging of Louis Napoleon. The demolition of medieval and Renaissance aspects of eighteenth-century Paris that he had known and loved as a child conditioned the tone of his writings. He was a Parisian through and through; the concept of him as an archetypally French artist was to become a critical cliché.

When he eventually moved to the south of France, toward the end of the 1890s, it was for reasons of health. He was also now discovering inspiration in the southern landscape, in which he found echoes of a largely fictitious classical world. His late work was little known until after his death in 1919; some of his final canvases were in a memorial exhibition at the Salon d’Automne in 1920. In the 1920s, with the “Return to Order” called for by Cocteau and others, and a renewed interest in classical themes, Renoir’s late manner, into which he had moved around the turn of the century, left its imprint on Picasso, Matisse, Léger, Braque, and Derain, among others, only subsequently to fade into decades of virtual oblivion. The monumentally distorted earth goddesses of Renoir’s late manner, which had briefly attracted the interest of younger artists, have never received the critical attention they deserve, and his impact on twentieth-century modernism has yet to be adequately examined.

Renoir received only a rudimentary education and in 1854, at the age of thirteen, was apprenticed as a porcelain painter to the established firm Levy Frères. The importance of his years at work as an artisan decorating plain white, vitreous surfaces for both his painting and his writings on the decorative arts cannot be overstressed. (The porcelain was of course only glazed after the decoration had been imposed on it. But Renoir was aware of what the final results would have looked like and subsequently often varnished his paintings, whereas most other Impressionist painters preferred matte, drier effects.) Throughout his life he experimented with different grounds and surfaces, but the grounds were always white and smoothly applied.

In Renoir’s paintings light is produced not only by the effects of imposed colored pigments but also by a secondary luminosity coming through the support behind them. His work as a decorator—he also subsequently embellished semitransparent window blinds for another firm—encouraged him to work quickly, and with a light, feathery touch—au premier coup. Although he would have denied it, he had natural facility and was known to his workmates as “M. Rubens.” In 1858 the device of stamping designs mechanically on faience put an end to his chosen craft and instilled in him a hatred of mechanical processes and industrial progress. He felt that his own father’s life had been bisected cruelly by two worlds, the pre- and the postindustrial.

In 1861, determined now with the collapse of his trade to turn himself into a serious painter, Renoir entered the studio of Charles Gleyre, a liberal in artistic matters. It was through Gleyre that Renoir met his peers: Monet (with whom he briefly shared a lodging), Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille, to whom he was perhaps closest. Bazille was first and foremost a figure painter, and during his short life—in 1871 he joined a Zouave regiment and was killed in action that same November—he painted haunting, grave, but luminous pictures. Renoir was always to mourn the loss both to himself and to French painting. Through these new friends Renoir met others: Pissarro, Cézanne, and Berthe Morisot (to whom he became increasingly attached), as well as slightly older figures of the avant-garde, including Manet and Degas.

Renoir’s style is always immediately identifiable, and yet it is hard to convey its flavor, especially the unique charm given off by his paintings during his Impressionist years, when he first felt the compulsion to write. Interestingly enough it is by comparing him with his colleagues, by describing the kind of painter he was not, that one is able to come closest to describing his own achievement. He was not really interested in the changing effects of light, which were often examined in Monet’s work by observing the same motifs at different times of day and in different climatic conditions. Renoir simply wanted to light things up. He preferred dappled light that moved and played over surfaces, bringing his subjects to life, and particularly the way in which it “took” human flesh. In works, such as La Grenouillère (1869), that he painted while in the company of Monet, and that often depicted identical subjects, it is notable that whereas Monet uses figures to animate the picture surface, Renoir uses them to furnish it. Monet’s color harmonies have about them a broken, overall quality. Renoir often introduces a single vivid color note or accent—a red hat or blouse, a pink ribbon—to bring to life or “get hold” of his compositions. Renoir lacked Sisley’s feeling for topography, his curiosity about how a flooded river, for example, could alter the feel of a well-trodden riverside tow path, or an autumnal yellow tree make a familiar pink house behind it look more interesting in color. Renoir sought more generalized effects.

In Renoir’s work, moreover, we find none of the moral earnestness that characterizes Pissarro’s art and that makes itself felt in the conscientious way his paint surfaces are built up. Renoir’s own surfaces always look as if they had been lightly and magically stroked into existence. His vision was selective, and he frankly sought to please. He expressed a desire for his pictures to be “joyous and pretty—yes, pretty.” Here we come a little closer to the conviction expressed in his writings for the need to embellish.

Cézanne did in fact find Renoir’s work too pretty (as did Degas and Maupassant). Cézanne saw his own art as being based on sensation controlled by pictorial logic. Renoir’s art was impulsive, at the service of sensuality. Renoir responded to the feminine aspect of Morisot’s art, and indeed tended to see art as a whole as related to the feminine. But whereas Morisot was alert to the power behind women’s sensibilities, Renoir tended to see women as presences to be admired, seduced—though never lasciviously—by the caress of art. Renoir’s women are aware of our gaze but seldom meet it as Morisot’s often do. Gesture, the tilt of a head, the angle of a foot spoke to him more eloquently than any direct psychological engagement between model and viewer. His son Jean quotes Renoir as once remarking, “And that woman: did you notice the way she brushed back her hair with her forefingers? A good girl.”

  1. *

    See Jean Renoir, Pierre Auguste Renoir, My Father, translated by Rudolph and Dorothy Weaver (Little, Brown, 1962).

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