Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Summary

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (; Limoges, February 25, 1841 – Cagnes-sur-Mer, December 3, 1919) was a French painter, considered one of the greatest exponents of Impressionism.

Youth

Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born on February 25, 1841 in Limoges, in the Haute-Vienne region of France, the fourth of five children. His mother, Marguerite Merlet, was a humble textile worker, while his father, Léonard, was a tailor. It was therefore a family of very modest conditions, and the hypothesis that the Renoirs were of noble origins – promoted by his grandfather François, an orphan raised illo tempore by a slut – was not very popular in the family. Not surprisingly, when François died in 1845, father Léonard – enticed by the hope of a secure salary – moved with his family to Paris, settling at 16 rue de la Bibliothèque, a short distance from the Louvre museum. Pierre-Auguste was only three years old.

At the time, the urban layout of Paris had not yet been disrupted by the transformations carried out by Baron Haussmann, who, starting in 1853, superimposed on the narrow streets of the historic city a modern network of scenic boulevards and large star-shaped squares. The Parisian road system was therefore that, small and fragmented, of medieval origin, and in the narrow streets that radiated from the Tuileries Palace (destroyed during the Commune) children gathered to play together in the open air. Pierre-Auguste – “Auguste” for his mother, who hated the unpronounceability of “Pierre Renoir”, a name with certainly too many “r “s – in fact spent a happy and carefree childhood, and when he began to attend elementary school at the Brothers of the Christian Schools he revealed two unexpected talents. First of all, he possessed a sweet and melodious voice, so much so that his teachers insisted that he join the choir of Saint-Sulpice church, under the guidance of chapel master Charles Gounod. Gounod firmly believed in the boy”s singing potential and, in addition to offering him free singing lessons, he even went so far as to ask him to join the choir of the Opéra, one of the world”s major opera houses.

His father, however, was of a different opinion. When it rained, little Pierre-Auguste used to kill time by stealing his tailor”s chalks and using them to give free rein to his imagination, drawing family members, dogs, cats and other representations that still continue to populate the graphic creations of children. Father Léonard, on the one hand, would have wanted to scold his son, but on the other hand, he noticed that little Pierre created very beautiful drawings with his chalks, so much so that he decided to inform his wife and buy him notebooks and pencils, despite their cost, which was very high in nineteenth-century Paris. When Gounod pressured the little one to join the liturgical choir, Léonard preferred to decline his generous proposal and encouraged his son”s artistic talent, in the hope that he would become a good decorator of porcelain, an activity typical of Limoges. Enthusiastic self-taught, Renoir himself proudly cultivated his artistic talent and, in 1854 (he was only thirteen years old), he entered a porcelain factory in rue du Temple as an apprentice painter, thus crowning his father”s ambitions. Here, the young Pierre-Auguste decorated porcelain with floral compositions, and then, with experience, began to work on more complex compositions, such as the portrait of Marie-Antoinette. By selling the various pieces at three soldi a piece, Renoir managed to accumulate a good sum of money, and his hopes of finding a job at the prestigious Sèvres factory (this was his greatest ambition at that time) were more palpable and alive than ever.

First years as a painter

But not everything went smoothly: in 1858, in fact, the Lévy company declared bankruptcy. Left without work, Renoir found himself forced to work on his own, helping his engraver brother to paint fabrics and fans and decorating a café in rue Dauphine. Although there are no traces left of these works, we know that Renoir enjoyed great popularity, and in this he was certainly aided by the versatility of his talent and, above all, by his innate taste for artistic types that were naturally appealing to the public, which in fact approved of his works from the beginning. He was also appreciated when he painted sacred subjects for the merchant Gilbert, a maker of tents for missionaries with whom he had found temporary employment.

Renoir, although cheered by these successes, never rested on his laurels and continued undaunted to study. During breaks, in fact, he used to walk through the halls of the Louvre museum, where he could admire the works of Rubens, Fragonard and Boucher: of the former he appreciated the mastery in the rendering of the highly expressive complexions, while the latter two fascinated him with the delicacy and fragrance of the chromatic material. Since 1854, on the other hand, he had been attending evening classes at the École de Dessin et d”Arts décoratifs, where he met the painter Émile Laporte, who urged him to devote himself to painting in a more systematic and continuous way. It was during this period, in fact, that Renoir matured the conviction of becoming a painter, and in April 1862 he decided to invest his savings by enrolling at the École des Beaux-Arts and, at the same time, entering the studio of the painter Charles Gleyre.

Gleyre was a painter who “colored David”s classicism with romantic melancholy” and who, following a well-established practice, welcomed about thirty students into his private studio, so as to make up for the glaring deficiencies of the academic system. Here Renoir had the opportunity to practice studying and reproducing living models, using geometric perspective and drawing. He, however, possessed a quick, lively, almost effervescent stroke that did not sit well with Gleyre”s rigid academicism: Renoir, however, did not care, and when the master reproached his practice of “painting for fun,” he wisely retorted, “If you did not amuse me, please believe that I would not paint at all.” This was a distinctive trait of his poetics, even of his maturity, which we will explore further in the Style section.

In addition to the benefits that derived from his discipleship with Gleyre, Renoir”s pictorial maturation was influenced above all by his encounter with Alfred Sisley, Fréderic Bazille and Claude Monet, painters who, like him, found mere academic discipline inadequate and mortifying. Feeling oppressed by the claustrophobia of the studios, the group of young men decided to follow the example of Charles-François Daubigny and, in April 1863, they decided to go together to Chailly-en-Bière, at the edge of the uncontaminated forest of Fontainebleau, so as to work in the open air, strictly en plein air, with a more direct approach to nature.

In 1864 Gleyre definitively closed his studio and, at the same time, Renoir brilliantly passed his exams at the Academy, thus concluding his artistic apprenticeship. So it was that, in the spring of 1865, he moved together with Sisley, Monet and Camille Pissarro to the village of Marlotte, finding accommodation in the welcoming inn of Mère Anthony. Important was the friendship with Lise Tréhot, a woman who entered in the artistic autobiography of the painter very overbearingly: her features are in fact recognizable in many works of Renoir, as Lisa with umbrella, Gypsy, Woman of Algiers and Parisian women in Algerian costume. In the meantime, the painter, afflicted by an economic situation that was anything but prosperous, moved first to Sisley”s home, and then to the atelier in rue Visconti di Bazille, from which he received hospitality and moral support. The cohabitation was very happy and the two worked hard, in daily contact. Proof of this can be seen in the portrait that Bazille made of Renoir (this is the image that appears in the introductory section of the page) and the painting done by Renoir, portraying Bazille at his easel intent on painting a still life.

His association with Bazille was indeed fundamental. With him, when the sun had set and the gas light was insufficient to continue painting, he began to frequent the Café Guerbois in rue de Batignolles, a renowned meeting place for artists and writers. During the chats that took place at the cafe, the painters, led by Manet and his writer friend Émile Zola, matured the intention to capture the heroism of modern society, without taking refuge in the depiction of historical themes. Within the Café Guerbois, this effervescent coterie of painters, writers and art lovers also developed the idea of making themselves known as a group of “independent” artists, thus breaking free from the official circuit. While adhering to the intentions of his friends, Renoir did not disdain the Salons and in 1869 he participated with the Gypsy. Moreover, thanks to the social opportunities offered by the Café Guerbois, Renoir was able to intensify his relationship with Monet, with whom he established a fervent, even fraternal understanding. The two, in fact, loved to paint together, in the sign of a strong technical and iconographic coincidence, often intervening on the same motif: famous is their visit to the island of Croissy on the Seine, which they visited and portrayed in 1869, working side by side, thus creating two separate paintings (Renoir”s is La Grenouillère). Also at the Café Guerbois, Renoir met Henri Fantin-Latour, a painter who in those years was working on a painting called Atelier de Batignolles in which he brilliantly predicted the birth of the Impressionist group, which was taking off in that period.

Impressionism

This was a period during which Renoir, although afflicted by a chronic lack of money, spent a carefree and joyful life, in the sign of pictorial experimentation and life in the open air. His artistic production, however, suffered a violent setback in the summer of 1870, with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. Also Renoir unfortunately was called to arms and enlisted in a regiment of cuirassiers: as this role he went first to Bordeaux and then to Vic-en-Bigorre, in the Pyrenees, with the specific task of training horses (which was assigned to him although he had virtually no experience in this regard). With the surrender of Sedan, the artist returned to Paris and, after moving to a new studio on the rive gauche (the old one was risky because of the bombings), he obtained a passport with which the “citizen Renoir” was officially authorized to exercise the arts in public. Despite a brief bout of dysentery during his military experience, Renoir emerged from the conflict practically unharmed: nevertheless, this was an absolutely disastrous period for him. From the conflict, in fact, sprang a chaotic and disorderly situation which, culminating in the dramatic experience of the Paris Commune, certainly did not help young artists to find their way: in fact, Renoir”s generation – who, embittered, opened up to a disorderly life, as a bohemian – only met with hostility and resistance from the official art critics. Moreover, Renoir was also afflicted by the bereavement of Bazille who, having volunteered in August 1870, perished in the battle of Beaune-la-Rolande. With the tragic death of Bazille, the dear friend with whom he had shared his first ateliers, first enthusiasms and first failures, Renoir was shaken by violent jolts of regret and indignation and seemed to detach himself definitively from his youth.

In spite of this period of difficulty, Renoir continued to paint – as he had always done – and approached the Impressionist poetics irreversibly. With Monet and Manet, he retired to Argenteuil, a village that definitively converted him to en plein air: witness the Sails at Argenteuil, a canvas where the palette clears up and the brushstrokes are short and coruscating, according to a manner that can be defined as properly Impressionist. His Impressionist turn was formalized with the adhesion to the “Société anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs”, society instituted on Pissarro”s suggestion (Monet, Sisley, Degas, Berthe Morisot and others were also part of it) in the perspective of gathering money to organize exhibitions managed autonomously. The first of these exhibitions, held on April 15, 1874 in the premises of the photographer Nadar at 35, boulevard des Capucines, caused Renoir great embarrassment, as he found himself in the uncomfortable position of choosing the exhibition route among the various works. It was a very difficult task because, despite the commonality of intentions, the painters present at the first exhibition of 1874 were characterized by a marked lack of coherence: “Just compare the works of Monet and Degas: the first is essentially a landscape painter interested in the rendering of light effects with strong and synthetic brushstrokes, the second a follower of Ingres” linearism, sensitive to the representation of interiors depicted with compositional cuts that recall the photographs of the time” (Giovanna Rocchi).

Shortly before the opening of the exhibition, Renoir admitted: “We only had one idea, to exhibit, to show our canvases everywhere”. In the exhibition of the Impressionists, therefore, he saw an excellent opportunity to reveal himself to the general public and therefore exhibited some of his best works, such as The Dancer, The Parisian Girl, The Stage. The exhibition, unfortunately, turned out to be a disappointing fiasco, but this was not totally true for Renoir. If Monet was definitely panned by the critics, Renoir was recognized as having a certain ingenuity: “It”s a shame that the painter who also has a certain taste in color, does not draw better,” commented Louis Leroy. In spite of the harshness of some criticisms, in any case, the exhibition was of fundamental importance since it was on that occasion that the manner of Renoir and his companions was defined “impressionist” for the first time, because it is a style that does not intend to describe the landscape in a realistic way, but that prefers to capture the luminous fleetingness of an instant, an impression that is totally different and autonomous from those immediately preceding and following it. If the majority of reviewers harshly criticized this peculiarity, others (though few) were able to recognize the innovative charge and the fresh immediacy with which the luministic effects were rendered. Jules-Antoine Castagnary, very courageously, was generous with praise for this particular stylistic choice:

Although the critics were not very destructive towards Renoir, from a financial point of view the 1874 exhibition was a total failure and did not solve the painter”s financial uncertainties. This, however, was not enough to dampen the enthusiasm of the group, and therefore Renoir – more inflamed than ever – continued to paint with his friends, animated by a spirit of goliardic involvement. Even Manet, who never wanted to associate himself with the Impressionists, greatly appreciated Renoir”s daring experiments and, seeing him once painting out of the corner of his eye, whispered to Monet the following phrase, aping the art critics of the time: “He has no talent, that boy! You who are his friend, tell him to give up painting!”. The specter of economic failure, however, was always around the corner, and for this reason in 1875 Renoir organized with the painter Berthe Morisot a public auction at the Hôtel Drouot, with the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel as art expert. The initiative, however, had unsuccessful results, if not disastrous: many works were sold out, if not bought back, and public resentment reached such high peaks that Renoir found himself forced to ask for the intervention of the police, to prevent the controversy degenerassino in fights.

However, Victor Chocquet, a modest customs official with a passion for Delacroix, was also present at the exhibition. He immediately admired Renoir”s painting, to which he was bound by affectionate respect and sincere enthusiasm. In addition to supporting the Impressionists financially and defending them from the low blows of the critics, Chocquet came to own eleven paintings by Renoir, the most significant of which is undoubtedly the Portrait of Madame Chocquet. With his official portraiture, Renoir accumulated a considerable fortune, which he allocated to the purchase of a house-studio in Montmartre, and consecrated his own professional success, so much so that a small but very respectable circle of amateurs and collectors began to form around him. Durand-Ruel also intensified his relations with Renoir, betting with flair and courage on his œuvre, and the publisher Charpentier, enchanted by his paintings, introduced him into his wife”s salon, assiduously frequented by the best literary and intellectual elite of the city (Flaubert, Daudet, Guy de Maupassant, Jules and Edmond de Goncourt, Turgenev and Victor Hugo were practically at home there). Despite his success as a portraitist of the Parisian world and the war, Renoir did not completely abandon the practice of en plein air, with which he created in 1876 the Bal au moulin de la Galette, one of the paintings to which his name has remained inextricably linked. The Bal au moulin de la Galette was presented to the Parisian public on the occasion of the third Impressionist exhibition in 1877, the last one in which the old friends of the time (Cézanne, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Monet, Degas) were reunited: after this fateful year, in fact, the group became progressively less cohesive, and then broke up for good.

The Beautiful Country

At the end of the 1870s Renoir was in fact moved by a profound creative restlessness, exasperated by the various disagreements that arose with his friends, who accused him of prostituting his art for the sake of celebrity: we will discuss this in more detail in the Style section. Renoir, on the other hand, also felt a deep need to travel and change air: after all, it was the year 1879 and in his thirty-eight years of life he had only visited Paris and the Seine valley. For this reason, also favored by his now prosperous economic situation, in 1880 he decided to go to Algiers, in the footsteps of his beloved Delacroix, who also went to North Africa in 1832. Back in France he was also invited to England by his friend Duret, although he was forced to decline, because at that time he was “struggling with trees in bloom, with women and children, and I do not want to see anything else”. The reason for this “struggle” is to be found in Aline Charigot, the woman the master portrayed in his famous Breakfast of the Rowers: Renoir, driven by the need to settle permanently, would then marry her in 1890.

Even more fruitful was the trip he made to Italy in 1882. If the Latin etymology of the term “vacation” (vacare) suggests a delightful “emptiness” in which the rhythms slow down, the concept of vacation for Renoir, on the contrary, consisted in painting all the time and, at the same time, questioning the art museums he encountered along the way. Italy, on the other hand, was a much sought-after destination for the painter, who until then had only been able to get to know it through the Renaissance works on display at the Louvre and through the fiery descriptions of friends who had visited it. In fact, when he was a student, he did not compete for the Prix de Rome, a scholarship that guaranteed the winners a training trip to the Bel Paese, so as to worthily crown their years of study in France, and because of the insufficient economic support he did not even think of going to Italy with his own means, as did for example Manet and Degas. The “journey of maturity” to Italy and the contact with the immense cultural deposits of the Renaissance, in any case, was a harbinger of important innovations and “caesuras” (a term often used by the painter) in Renoir”s art, who once he had become an old man would confess: “1882 was a great date in my evolution”. “The problem with Italy is that it is too beautiful,” he would add, “the Italians have no merit in having created great works of art. All they needed to do was look around. Italian streets are filled with pagan gods and biblical characters. Every woman nursing a child is a Raphael”s Madonna!”. The extraordinariness of the stay in the Bel Paese is condensed in a beautiful phrase that Renoir addressed to a friend, to whom he confided: “One always returns to one”s first loves, but with an extra note”.

The Italian tour began in Venice: Renoir was literally bewitched not only by the art of Carpaccio and Tiepolo (Titian and Veronese were not new since he had already admired them de visu at the Louvre), but also by the charm of the Lagoon and its peculiarities, and immediately took care to capture the atmospheric identity between air, water and light that characterized those places, described in his paintings with great investigative zeal. After hasty stops in Padua and Florence, he finally reached Rome, where he was struck by the persuasive violence of the Mediterranean light. It was in the Urbe, moreover, that his admiration for the art of the old masters exploded in him, especially Raphael Sanzio: in fact, Renoir had admired the frescoes of the Urbino artist at the Villa Farnesina, “admirable for their simplicity and grandeur”. The last important stop on his Italian tour was the Gulf of Naples, where he admired the chromatic enchantments of the island of Capri and discovered the wall paintings of Pompeii, proudly displayed in the archeological museum of the Neapolitan city. He also went to Palermo, where he met the great German musician Richard Wagner and paid homage to him with a portrait. The Italian trip had extraordinary implications in his pictorial maturation, culminating in the realization of the Great Bathers: of this stylistic evolution, as usual, we will speak in detail in the paragraph Style.

Last years

At the turn of the twentieth century Renoir was officially recognized as one of the most illustrious and versatile artists in Europe. His fame, on the other hand, had been definitively consolidated with the great retrospective organized in 1892 by Durand-Ruel (one hundred and twenty-eight works were exhibited, including Bal au moulin de la Galette and La colazione dei canottieri) and with the dazzling success achieved at the Salon d”Automne in 1904: even the French State, until then distrustful of him, bought his works, and in 1905 he was even awarded the Legion of Honor. Very weak were the relationships with the Impressionist group, which was now broken up: of the various artists of the old guard, in fact, continued to paint only Claude Monet, now retired tired and sick in his villa in Giverny, and Edgar Degas, almost blind but still very active.

Renoir, too, began to be threatened by serious health problems, and around the age of fifty the first symptoms of that devastating rheumatoid arthritis that would torment him until his death, causing complete paralysis of the lower limbs and semi-paralysis of the upper ones, appeared. It was a decidedly aggressive disease, as noted by Annamaria Marchionne:

Despite the unprecedented ferocity of the disease Renoir continued to paint undaunted and was even willing to tie his brushes to his steadiest hand, so as to return to his longed-for beginnings and to “put color on the canvas for fun”. Precisely because of the progressive infirmity in the early years of the twentieth century he moved on the advice of doctors in Cagnes-sur-Mer, on the French Riviera, where in 1908 he bought the estate of Collettes, hidden among the foliage of olive and orange trees and perched on a hill in view of the old village and the sea. Although he groaned continuously with pain, Renoir benefited from the mild climate of the Mediterranean region and the comforts of provincial bourgeois life, he continued to exercise his painting technique unceasingly, and fought with all his strength the obstacles posed by deforming arthritis. His creative energies were inexorably depleted, also due to the death of his beloved wife Aline in 1915: he could, however, still brilliantly dissertate on art, and attracted around him a group of ardent young people (less fruitful was his meeting, in 1919, with Modigliani who, contesting Renoir”s painting and therefore the pictorial forms of some of the models portrayed by the master (“I don”t like those buttocks!”), left, slamming the studio door. Renoir finally died on December 3, 1919 in his villa in Cagnes. According to his son Jean, his last famous words, pronounced the evening before he died while the brushes were being removed from his shrunken fingers, were: “I think I”m beginning to understand something”. He is buried with his family in the cemetery of Essoyes in Burgundy.

Renoir: painter craft

Renoir was one of the most convinced and spontaneous interpreters of the Impressionist movement. A prodigiously prolific artist, with no less than five thousand canvases to his credit and an equally conspicuous number of drawings and watercolors, Renoir also distinguished himself for his versatility, so much so that we can distinguish numerous periods in his pictorial production. It is Renoir himself, in any case, to talk about his method of making art:

As emerges from this quotation, Renoir approached painting in an absolutely anti-intellectualistic way and, although he too was intolerant of academic conventionalism, he never contributed to the cause of Impressionism with theoretical reflections or abstract declarations. He, in fact, repudiates any form of intellectualism and confesses a vivid confidence in the concrete experience of painting, which is objectified in the only expressive means of brushes and palette: “work as a good worker”, “worker of painting”, “make good painting” are in fact phrases that recur often in his letters. This decisive need for concreteness is reiterated by Renoir himself in his preface to the French edition of the Libro d”arte di Cennino Cennini (1911), where, in addition to providing advice and practical suggestions for aspiring painters, he states that “it might seem that we are very far from Cennino Cennini and from painting, yet this is not so, since painting is a craft like carpentry and ironworking, and is subject to the same rules”. The critic Octave Mirbeau, even, points out the causes of Renoir”s greatness precisely in this peculiar conception of painting:

Influences

Because of the above reasons, Renoir was never animated by the fierce idealism of a Monet or a Cézanne and, on the contrary, he often resorted to the example of the old masters. Compared to his colleagues, Renoir felt he was “heir to a living force accumulated over generations” (Benedetti) and for this reason was more willing to take inspiration from the legacy of the past. Even in his maturity, in fact, he never ceased to consider the museum as the congenial place for the formation of an artist, seeing in it the ability to teach “that taste for painting that nature alone cannot give us”.

Renoir”s work stands as a meeting point (or clash) between very heterogeneous artistic experiences. He was attracted to Rubens by the vigor and full-bodied brushstrokes and the masterful rendering of the highly expressive flesh tones, while he appreciated the delicacy and fragrance of the chromatic material of the French Rococo painters – Fragonard and Boucher above all -. A role of decisive importance in Renoir”s artistic reflection is also played by the Barbizon painters, from whom he borrowed a taste for the plein air and the habit of assessing the correspondence between landscapes and states of mind. Important was also the influence of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, a real “black beast” for colleagues, who saw in him a symbol of the sterility of academic practices: Renoir, on the contrary, was very fascinated by his style, in which he believed to perceive the pulse of life, and drew an almost carnal pleasure (“I secretly enjoyed the beautiful belly of the Source and the neck and arms of Madame Rivière”). Of Raffaello Sanzio, a very important influence especially in his late maturity, we will speak in the paragraph The aigre style.

In Renoir”s artistic universe, then, a characteristic place of prominence goes to Gustave Courbet. A man animated by a strong determination and a combative charisma, Courbet not only thematized what until then had been considered unworthy of pictorial representation, but he also succeeded in transferring pieces of matter onto canvas. His painting is heavy, heavy, with an earthly strength: the canvases of the master of Ornans, in fact, are endowed with their own powerful physicality, and are substantiated by a very raw pictorial matter in which the colors are rich in thickness and are often applied with palette knife strokes, just to obtain effects of “concreteness” on the canvas. This expressive vigor suggested to Renoir an unknown freedom in the treatment of the pictorial matter, which would emerge clearly even when the painter”s artistic research was oriented towards new methodologies.

The painter of joie de vivre

Renoir”s work is marked by the most authentic joie de vivre. In his life, in fact, Renoir was animated by a genuine enthusiasm for life, and never ceased to be amazed at the infinite wonders of creation, enjoying its beauty to the full and feeling the spasmodic desire to transfer onto canvas, with a sweet and intense emotional participation, the memory of every visual perception that had struck him. The critic Piero Adorno, in order to underline how Renoir related to every aspect of life, be it big or small, proposed the following syllogism: “everything that exists lives, everything that lives is beautiful, everything that is beautiful deserves to be painted” (therefore, everything that exists is worthy of pictorial representation).

All his paintings, from his first works in Gleyre”s studio to his last works in Cagnes, actually capture the sweetest and most ephemeral aspects of life, rendering them with fluid and vibrant brushstrokes and with a soothing and joyful chromatic and luministic texture. “I like those paintings that make me want to go inside them to take a tour”: with these words the painter explicitly invites the observers of his paintings to interact with them with an enjoyment akin to that which he himself had experienced by painting them. That of “fun” is one of the key concepts of Renoir”s poetics: he, in fact, adored “putting colors on the canvas to have fun”, to the point that probably no other painter had ever felt such an inalienable urge to paint in order to express his feelings (“the brush is a sort of organic extension, a participating appendage of his sensitive faculties”, observes Maria Teresa Benedetti). Exemplary is the answer he gave with youthful sincerity to the master Gleyre, who conceived painting as a rigorous formal exercise, to be carried out with seriousness and responsibility and certainly not letting himself go to figures of nonchalance. To the astonished master, who harassed him by reminding him of the dangers of “painting for fun”, he replied: “If I didn”t have fun, please believe that I wouldn”t paint at all”.

To sum up, his paintings also reveal his overflowing joy and his acceptance of the world perceived as a pure expression of the joy of living. This is also thanks to a consistent series of important stylistic devices: especially before the aigre turning point, his paintings are light and airy, imbued with a lively, pulsating light, and are overwhelmed by colors with joyful vivacity. Renoir then fragments the light into small patches of color, each of which is deposited on the canvas with a great delicacy of touch, to the point that the entire work seems to vibrate in the eyes of the viewer, and become something clear and tangible, thanks to the wise agreements between complementary colors (distributed according to a properly impressionist technique).

This creative effervescence addressed many pictorial genres. His work refers first of all to the “heroism of modern life” that Charles Baudelaire had identified as the theme of an art that can be called authentic: for this reason, Renoir – as well as his colleagues – understood that in order to achieve excellent results in “history painting” it was not necessary to take hypocritical refuge in the history of past centuries, but rather to confront themselves with their contemporary age in a spontaneous, fresh but vigorous manner, following the example of the older Édouard Manet. We report below the comment of Maria Teresa Benedetti, significant also for an easier understanding of the relationship between Renoir and the joie de vivre:

The aigre style

A drastic stylistic change took place following his trip to Italy in 1881. Feeling oppressed by the Impressionist choice, in fact, Renoir in that year decided to go to the Bel Paese to carefully study the art of the Renaissance masters, following in the footsteps of a pictorial topos borrowed from the revered Ingres. The Italian stay, in fact, in addition to further broaden his figurative horizons involved important consequences on his way of painting. What struck him were the murals of Pompeii and, above all, the frescoes “admirable for their simplicity and grandeur” of Raphael”s Farnesina, in which he discovered that aesthetic perfection which he had not been able to achieve with the Impressionist experience. With melancholic enthusiasm he confessed to his friend Marguerite Charpentier:

If Raphael”s art fascinated Renoir for its quiet grandeur, for the diffused light and for the plastically defined volumes, from the paintings of Pompeii he derived a taste for those scenes that skilfully mix the ideal dimension with the real one, as in the frescoes depicting heraldic, mythological, amorous and Dionysian enterprises and illusionistic architecture that embellished the domus of the Vesuvian city. He himself says:

At the sight of the Renaissance models Renoir experienced strong spiritual discomfort, he saw himself stripped of his certainties, even worse, he discovered himself artistically ignorant. Following the reception of Raphael”s frescoes and Pompeian paintings, he was in fact convinced that he had never really possessed pictorial and graphic technique, and that he had by then exhausted the resources offered by Impressionist technique, especially with regard to the incidence of light on nature: “I had arrived at the extreme point of Impressionism and I had to establish that I no longer knew how to paint or draw”, he would sadly note in 1883.

To resolve this impasse Renoir broke away from Impressionism and inaugurated his “aigre” or “ingresque” phase. Reconciling Raphael”s model with that of Ingres, known and loved since the beginning, Renoir decided to overcome the vibrant instability of visual perception of Impressionism and to move towards a more solid and incisive painting. To emphasize the constructiveness of the forms, in particular, he recovered a clear and precise drawing, a “taste attentive to the volumes, to the solidity of the outlines, to the monumentality of the images, to a progressive chastity of color” (StileArte), in the sign of a less episodic and more systematic synthesis of the pictorial matter. He, moreover, abandons the plein air and returns to elaborate his own creations in the ateliers, this time however assisted by a rich figurative background. For the same process in his work landscapes are seen more and more sporadically and develops a taste for human figures, especially female nudes. This was a real iconographic constant in his oeuvre – present both in the early days and during the Impressionist experiments – but that during the aigre phase is affirmed with greater vigor, under the sign of an absolute primacy of the figure, made with vivid and delicate brushstrokes, able to capture with precision the joyful mood of the subject and the opulence of his complexion.

His son Jean Renoir, finally, offers a very detailed physiognomic and character portrait of his father, also outlining his clothing habits and the look that indicates his tender and ironic character:

Renoir”s work underwent ups and downs in the esteem of the critics during the first thirty years of his activity. In spite of the timid appreciation of Bürger and Astruc, who were the first to notice its qualities, Renoir”s pictorial production had to face the open hostility of the French critics and public, who gave little credit to the new Impressionist research and continued to prefer the academic manner. Émile Zola talks about it in his novel L”opera, where he reports that “the laughter that could be heard was no longer the one stifled by the ladies” handkerchiefs and the men”s bellies expanded when they gave vent to their hilarity. It was the contagious laughter of a crowd that came to have fun, that progressively got excited, bursting out laughing for nothing, driven by hilarity from both beautiful and execrable things”.

Despite this, Renoir could enjoy the support of a large number of supporters, first of all Zola himself and Jules-Antoine Castagnary. Even more consistent appreciation came from Georges Rivière and Edmond Renoir in 1877 and 1879. We report them below:

Initially, Renoir”s oeuvre was in fact much opposed by critics, despite a discrete popularity during his intense portrait season. It can be said, in fact, that his paintings at the end of the nineteenth century deserved a mixed attitude. Diego Martelli in 1880 spoke of him in terms of a “delicate artist”, but of the same opinion were not his fellow artists: the Impressionist experiments, in fact, had initially in Italy the disruptive scope typical of the novelties too early, and did not find a fertile ground where spread easily. This contradiction also occurred overseas, so much so that on the one hand the Sun in 1886 accused Renoir of being an unworthy pupil of Gleyre, and on the other hand, American amateurs competed to buy his works, prey to a veritable collector”s enthusiasm.

The cult of Renoir was revived at the beginning of the twentieth century. The monographic exhibition of 1892 at the Durand-Ruel gallery and Renoir”s massive participation in the Salon d”Automne in 1904 (forty-five works) contributed significantly to reaffirming his reputation. This success was accompanied by episodes of profound adherence to his art: it is enough to think of Maurice Gangnat, owner of one of the largest collections of the painter”s works, of the Fauves and Henri Matisse, for whom visits to Renoir in his residence in Cagnes became true pilgrimages, or even of Maurice Denis, Federico Zandomeneghi, Armando Spadini and Felice Carena (in this sense, as Giovanna Rocchi observed, “Renoir”s fortune is much more figurative than written”). Even art critics, however, could not remain indifferent to such a success, and in 1911 the first systematic study of Renoir”s pictorial production was published by Julius Meier-Grafe. From this moment on Renoir was the object of a true rediscovery by art critics: in 1913, on the occasion of an exhibition at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, the first monumental catalog of Renoir”s paintings was published with a preface by Mirbeau (who considered Renoir”s biographical and artistic events as “a lesson in happiness”). After this renewed interest, the initial repulsions were overcome and research on the technique and on the stylistic developments of the painter multiplied, with the publication of various pioneering studies, among which are those edited by André (1919), Ambroise Vollard (1919), Fosca (1923), Duret (1924), Besson (1929 and 1938), Barnes and de Mazia (1933). These contributions, deserving above all for their precociousness, were promptly followed by some critical interventions by Fosca and Roger-Marx, by a colossal study by Drucker (1944) and by Rewald”s in-depth study (1946) on the relations between Renoir and the French cultural context of the end of the 19th century, translated into Italian in 1949 with a preface by Longhi. Very significant were also the exhibitions held at the Orangerie in Paris in 1933 and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1937. Special mention should also be made of the studies of Delteil (1923) and Rewald (1946), focused mainly on the graphic production of the painter, and the research conducted by Cooper, Rouart, Pach, Perruchot and Daulte on the chronology of the various works.

Sources

  1. Pierre-Auguste Renoir
  2. Pierre-Auguste Renoir
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