Renoir the Irregular


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.”

Jacques Emile Blanche, painter, collector, and chronicler of Paris society, was to comment on the change wrought in Renoir’s technique by his acceptance into liberal, high bourgeois circles, like those of the Charpentiers and the Bérards, who were becoming central to Renoir’s life. (Bérard was a diplomat and company director.) And it is true that some of the canvases of the 1880s become more worked and stylistically more self-conscious. Renoir always saw himself as a “producer” (his own word) and he was honest about seeking to make his work marketable. But this was only a small part of the story. He was also, by his own admission, becoming dissatisfied with certain aspects of Impressionism. In 1882, just after a trip to Italy, his work underwent a marked change. Contours become firmer and harder and the distinction between subject matter and its surroundings much sharper.

He had for some time been worried that his draftsmanship was being sacrificed to purely painterly effects. He had been looking at Ingres and had learned from him that line, as opposed to modeling in light and shade, could produce a sensation of volume or physical bulk. In the great Bathers, painted between 1884 and 1887, he moved into his fully developed “dry,” “sour,” or hard manner. When the painting was shown at Georges Petit’s gallery it was subtitled Essay in Decorative Painting. It is here that he declares overtly his basic allegiance to French eighteenth-century art. His identification with it is underscored in his writings. The name of Boucher comes immediately to mind, and there are specific borrowings from a somewhat earlier French source: Girardin’s Nymphs Bathing, an outdoor relief of 1670 at Versailles.

During the nineteenth century the word “decorative” had been used by critics in many different ways, and had even been applied, both favorably and unfavorably, to Impressionism. Renoir’s use of the word was traditional and straightforward: for him it meant adornment, embellishment, and he associated this embellishment with architecture, both external and internal. During his penultimate years he produced the finest and most sumptuous among his own decorative works, including the Bathers in the Forest of around 1897, with its insistent echoes of Fragonard. But some pieces actually suggest or call for architectural settings. The beautiful Reclining Nude (La Source) of 1895-1897, in which the reclining figure is encased in a painted gray marblelike frame, onto which her drapery spills out, suggests immediately a setting over a door. The two upright panels of 1909, Dancer with Castanets and Dancer with Tambourine, were painted for the dining room of another patron, Maurice Gagnat. They hover between the classical and the lush romantic. The superb Caryatids of around 1910 consists of paired canvases, each of which contains two nudes standing in niches. These were almost certainly done with a particular architectural setting in mind although their original destination remains unknown.


Since the purpose of Nature’s Workshop might, at first glance, have been to assemble all of Renoir’s “Writings on the Decorative Arts,” it is strange that these should be classified in the book as appendices. There are eleven of them, and they are given to us in French as well as in English. Three of these were published during Renoir’s lifetime, one posthumously, and seven appear here for the first time. They are impeccably edited by Robert L. Herbert. Indeed the book is as much his as Renoir’s. Herbert’s own text, which makes up the first half of the book, is broken down into four relatively short essays. The first, “Renoir’s Writings, 1877-1884,” explores a background to his compulsion to write by touching on his connections with arts other than painting, and with architecture in particular, all of which he felt to be in severe decline. The others are called “Renoir, Ruskin, Morris, and the Arts and Crafts in France,” “Renoir and Cennino Cennini in 1910”—which discusses Renoir’s drafts of a preface to the treatise on the art of painting written around 1390 by the Italian painter Cennino Cennini—and “The ‘Decorative’ in Renoir’s Paintings.”

Taken together those texts are more than a sum of their parts and will find a place in the library of anyone interested not simply in Renoir and Impressionism, but in the visual arts in France during Renoir’s lifetime. Herbert also produces useful, short introductions to Renoir’s own texts. These, however, are of interest only insofar as they cast light into the workings of the mind of a great artist. The sadness is that Renoir has so little to say about painting and never even mentions his own. He was not a writer; his style is undistinguished; and he was not a thinker. But he was a painter to his very finger tips. (He had particularly strong feelings about finger tips, even about those not his own.)

Renoir’s premises are simple. He was trained as a decorator and as an artisan and disliked what he felt to be an arbitrary distinction between the “fine” and the “applied” arts. He saw architecture as the mother of art and craft, since it called for embellishment both external and internal. In fact the decorative arts were not being ignored in France during the first period of his writings on the subject. In the eighteenth century the importance of the decorative arts had been taken for granted. After le style Empire, they had entered, stylistically, a period of hybrid stasis.

The World Fairs of Paris in 1851 and London in 1855, however, encouraged critics and industrialists alike to believe that France was lagging behind in the industrial arts. In 1864 several of them made proposals for projects to be carried out by a new Union Centrale des Beaux-Arts appliqués à l’Industrie. With its title shortened in 1882 to the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs, it called for a museum of its own and found permanent quarters in 1894. The industrial aspect of the project was now being camouflaged in favor of artistic excellence. But as Herbert points out:

Rather than aiming to democratize the crafts, the Union Centrale campaigned for a return of the decorative arts to the former aristocratic level of haut luxe, the specialized products which had been a mainstay of France’s reputation and her exports.

Even so Renoir could never have subscribed to the products being promoted by the Union because of the organization’s original industrial premise (although he briefly thought of applying to it for financial help in fostering his own ideas). The taste of the Third Republic, like that of the Second Empire, was eclectic and, despite an interest in the Rococo, tended to the heavy and lumpy. Renoir was not unjustified in feeling that in his age France had failed to provide a distinctive decorative style of its own.

Then, between the two phases of Renoir’s literary activity, in the 1890s, France experienced an extraordinary flowering of the decorative arts in the form of its own brand of Art Nouveau. This happened under stimulus from abroad, particularly from Germany as well as from England. (The success of the Munich style at every level was described in Paris as “an artistic Sedan,” referring to the site of the decisive French defeat in 1870, in the Franco-Prussian War.) Art Nouveau reached its apogee at the Exposition Universelle of 1900, and Renoir cannot have been unaware of it, if only because of its presence on the Paris streets—he was still spending some time in the city—in the form of Guimard’s entrances to the Métro. One suspects he would have been repelled by Art Nouveau’s excesses and by the taint of morbidity that characterized much of it. In view of the movement’s fascination with flowers, decay, insects, and the chrysalis, Art Nouveau was, appropriately enough, of short duration. At the time of Renoir’s death it was about to be resurrected, in altered form, as Art Deco.

The first two literary efforts by Renoir published here are letters of April 1877 to L’Impressioniste. The journal was edited by Jacques Rivière, a cultivated government official and lover of the arts. Later on Rivière claimed that Renoir urged him to launch the review; almost certainly Rivière had a hand in editing much of what Renoir actually succeeded in publishing. The letters are short and are signed “A painter.” Renoir here begins his litanies against contemporary French architecture, contrasting the new Louvre with the old from which it was copied, which was now rendered ugly by its detailing and by ornamentation that he finds heavy and banal. That of the Ministère de la Guerre is even worse, and Garnier’s Opéra comes in for the first of its many bastings. (“To think that the Germans missed it with their Big Berthas!” he later exclaimed.) He attacks Carpeaux’s lovely Dance, from the Opéra’s façade (now in the Musée d’Orsay), for not sitting back into its setting. (Many of Renoir’s late nudes are like sculptures that do exactly that.)

In the second letter he condemns the paintings inside the Opéra as being weak and coarse imitations of “Venetians or Germans, of Delacroix or Ingres…. Only Delacroix has understood decoration in our era.” There is an element of truth in this. To the old Louvre he adds, for approval, the Hôtel de Cluny and Notre-Dame, later to be joined by San Marco in Venice. Architects, he feels, should orchestrate the decoration of buildings in their plans, as in the Renaissance, but they must forget their Beaux-Arts training and turn to nature in its profusion of irregularities for instruction. Here is the key to most of what Renoir wrote; and it is here also that the presence of a Ruskinian ethos makes itself felt. Renoir never mentions Ruskin, and, I suspect, probably never read him. But Ruskin must have been talked about a lot in the social circles in which he moved. Proust, an admirer of Renoir, was to be one of Ruskin’s translators.

Like Ruskin’s, Renoir’s early lists of things to be emulated come from the Gothic and the Middle Ages. Both men disliked the idea of architectural restoration and preferred the idea of history being embedded in the surface of things. (Renoir’s later coloristic aggressiveness may owe something to the fact that he believed time would alter his hues.) They were both primarily concerned with the outsides of buildings. Although Renoir sketched decorative architectural motifs, I wonder whether he could have produced even a rudimentary ground plan of the buildings he most admired. He did not think in abstract terms.

The following three unpublished documents are possibly the most interesting in Herbert’s collection. The first concerns Renoir’s ambition to establish a new exhibiting organization—the “Société des Irrégularistes.” Many people, dissatisfied with the workings of the official Salon, felt that the Third Republic’s efforts to reform government and with it institutionalized education were not finding echoes in its treatment of the arts. The first draft of Renoir’s proposals of 1882-1884 is in many ways more interesting than its more concise version, which he sent to his dealer Paul Durand Ruel (who probably helped him to trim it down), precisely because it is more rambling and revealing. Since his avowed and obviously passionately felt intent was to promote the decorative arts through a revival of craft, it is somewhat startling that the draft begins with an attack on French workers. Basically Renoir was on their side but he felt they were going about things the wrong way. “Speaking only of French workers, they want to overturn everything.”

Renoir would have agreed with William Morris, whose influence in France was spreading, that machines designed for mass production destroyed the worker’s pride in his achievements. But, unlike Morris, Renoir felt no need to redeem society. Despite his pride in his own background, or perhaps because of it, Renoir was a reactionary and politically naive. He wanted reform in the decorative arts without disturbing the status quo. The third section of his proposals contains this statement: “The important thing is that along with the worker and the boss, there is another boss, namely the buyer. He is the strongest and the only one we need to try to please, and not only to please, but to enlighten, and vice versa.” It is to his credit that Renoir never tried to cover his own tracks.

Renoir then gets down to his real theme—an attack on academic art because of its predictability and artistic conservatism, which can only be rectified by a return to nature, which reproduces itself without ever repeating itself, and which ignores perfect geometry. “The globe we inhabit being irregular, everything that issues forth from it follows the same law…. The greatest of all artists is he who has admired nature the most.” And again, “Nature’s essential principle is irregularity.” The Impressionists wanted to place themselves directly in front of nature, and it might be thought that Renoir’s emphasis on the study of nature owed something to them. The Impressionists, however, were not interested in the details and peculiarities of natural forms and neither was Renoir in his paintings; but as a decorator of porcelain—he began by painting borders—Renoir had been made aware of the fascination of individual natural forms and their potential for inspiration.

Hence his proposed society’s name, the Irrégularistes. Despite the inclu-sion of decorative artists (“porcelain painters, etc…., all branches of art”), he wanted an association of the refined. He also discusses practical matters, for example the importance of exhibiting albums of photographs of monuments, or indeed of any works from “beautiful epochs.” Good architecture is very much a central concern; even architecture based on geometry is full of irregularities and this is where good and lively decoration can help. Mechanization, in the form of “the false perfection which now tends to make an ideal of engineer’s drawings,” is the enemy. And here, and throughout much of his writing, we have to keep reminding ourselves that Renoir, although he was not a sentimental man, was mourning the Paris of his childhood and early youth, the old Paris that Haussmann helped to destroy and the France which Viollet-le-Duc (another cardinal hatred of his) vulgarized and brutalized through his “historical” creations and re-creations.

The ideas embedded in the proposal for the Irrégularistes gave birth to that of Renoir’s “Grammar” of 1883-1884, hitherto thought to have been lost. It is dedicated to “all those who love art and those who wish to make a career out of it.” The “Grammar” is the longest of all Renoir’s writings and together with the “Notes” it takes up some forty-odd pages of Nature’s Workshop, a title that describes what the “Grammar” is about. He repeats all his ideas about the value of studying nature and its irregularities, but now insists more explicitly that this must be governed by “taste.” His love of the French eighteenth century becomes increasingly apparent. Renoir now expresses a desire to found “the Jockey Club of art,” without any membership procedures; but he adds that it would be enough for him if his ideas could be “understood by only twenty people.”

Together with the long draft to the Cennini preface of 1910, this is the most discursive of Renoir’s writings. He repeats himself—but then he does that even in the shorter pieces. In intellectual content the “Grammar” could be reduced to a fifth of its length. But we would lose many engaging passages such as, for instance, “The minister of fine arts must be a man of taste completely free of politics, like the postmaster.” Section 64 tells us that “everyone is a socialist and yet you mustn’t believe that we’ve discovered in 1883 the way to make everyone happy.” There are charming passages about the decoration of kitchens (he recommends friezes of vegetables and herbs, arranged, of course, irregularly).

Renoir’s last writings are his drafts for a preface to a translation of Libro dell’arte by the late medieval artist and writer Cennino Cennini. This had first been published in France in 1858 in a translation by Victor-Louis Mottez, a moderately successful painter of his times, now forgotten. After Mottez’s death in 1897 the text was revised by his son Henry. It was republished in 1911, in part at least thanks to efforts of the ex-Nabi painter Maurice Denis, who had by now become an influential critic and a fervent advocate of right-wing Catholic nationalism. The Nabis, a group that had originally been inspired by the work of Gauguin, would have discovered Cennini through their love of what were still being called the Italian Primitives. Denis admired Renoir and in particular, one suspects, his “dry” period. To all those involved it must have seemed something of a triumph to have obtained a preface from a by now celebrated artist. Renoir accepted the invitation in 1909. His preface was first published the following year, in doctored form, in L’Occident, a leading Catholic journal. His renunciation of Impressionism had been preceded by a trip to Italy and his conversion to much Italian art.

Cennini’s treatise deals with techniques of all media, with studio paraphernalia of all kinds, and he dwells at length on the decorative arts. Cennini also saw nature as “the most perfect guide.” In other words, he was ready made for Renoir. Writing about Cennini, Renoir was able to celebrate a long-past “golden age” and forget the current decline in craft he saw about him. The first long draft of his preface shows some astonishing historical lapses, as for example when he talks about “this marvelous school of Giotto of the IXth century which was the glory of High Italy.” (Renoir, or someone else, crossed out the words “marvelous” and “Giotto” in his manuscript.)

In his earlier writings Renoir talked of having read widely on architecture; but although he clearly knew and loved deeply the particular buildings he praised, his only literary reference in connection with them is to the Larousse dictionary. He ignores the fact that workshop practice in Cennini’s day made extensive use of copy books, and didn’t, one imagines, send apprentices out into the countryside or to study nature directly for inspiration. He goes off onto a lengthy disquisition on Greece. “The glory of Greece, queen of nations, lies in her magical religion.”

The Catholic right cannot have been too happy about this passage, which was removed from the published preface. Greece gives Renoir the occasion to move on to France, “Greece’s daughter,” and to “Francis I, our Jupiter.” This, too, was deleted. The preface, as Herbert shows, was probably edited by Denis and others as well. In the published text Catholics are given the credit for what Renoir saw as France’s three great centuries of art, and for the Italian Renaissance as well. As in the “Grammar,” with all its repetitions and maddening meanderings, here it is Renoir’s totally idiosyncratic draft to the preface, and not the published version, that one savors and enjoys.

Professor Herbert is not too attached to his subject as a personality. In his preface he writes, “I admit to long hesitations before I decided to write about an artist whose patchwork of belief included so many unsympathetic ideas.” But having taken Renoir on, primarily as a writer—although Herbert’s text provides insights into the paintings as well—he clearly feels under an obligation to make out a case for him. A little further on in the preface he says, “To place Renoir within the highest intellectual circles of Paris…and therefore to regard him as conversant with serious ideas, rubs against the grain of his reputation.”

Renoir was far from stupid, and for a time at least he moved in high intellectual circles. He was a good listener and undoubtedly took in much of what was being said around him. But it is a mistake to think that intellectuals only enjoy the companionship of other intellectuals. Renoir was good company despite his gaucheness. He hated solitude, and his eyes were always laughing. The picture of Renoir that emerges from his writings is that of a man who cared deeply about the visual arts, but he also emerges as a simple man, intellectually undisciplined and of limited culture. I do not see him as an unsympathetic character, only as one circumscribed in his outlook.

Herbert has not drawn much directly from Jean Renoir’s reminiscences of his father because they were written long after Renoir’s death and rely strongly on memories of conversations that are otherwise undocumented. But when all is said and done, Jean’s book remains the best account of Renoir, and, furthermore, among the most beautiful and moving biographies we have. Jean Renoir’s is a touching portrait, often written in cinematic flashback, of his father, whom he had always revered but whom he came to truly understand only in old age, as well as of the different Frances he had lived through and experienced. It is impossible to read the book without coming to love the old man, too.

  1. *

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