On the third of December, it will be exactly a century since the death of one of the core French Impressionists, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919). During the twentieth century, Renoir’s art faded into the background behind the work of others such as Monet and Cézanne, and became misrepresented by his soft-focus plump nudes. Yet in his lifetime, and at his death, his paintings were greatly appreciated by radical artists like Pierre Bonnard.
In this series to commemorate the centenary of Renoir’s death, I hope to show that there was a great deal more to his art than pink breasts.
Renoir was born in Limoges, just to the west of the middle of France, on 25 February 1841. His father was a tailor, and the family soon moved, when Auguste was but a toddler, to seek their fortune in Paris. As a child, he showed an early aptitude for drawing and singing, and was taught music by the composer Charles Gounod.
The Renoirs’ relocation didn’t bring the change in fortune which they had expected, so once he was thirteen, young Auguste started his apprenticeship at a porcelain factory. There, his painting abilities were recognised, and he started to prepare for candidacy for the École des Beaux-Arts. This was cut short when the factory switched from hand-painting (which Renoir naturally found tedious) to mechanical processes. For a while, he undertook decorative painting of fans and wall-hangings.
One of Renoir’s earliest surviving paintings, his Portrait of the Artist’s Mother from 1860 declares his intent in figurative painting. His mother Marguerite was a seamstress aged 53 at the time, and the artist already demonstrates his skill in modelling her worn features.
In 1860, Renoir started to copy paintings in the Louvre, standard practice at the time for those aspiring to paint. The following year, Renoir started at Charles Gleyre’s academy, where he later (1862) met other Impressionists-to-be, including Claude Monet (who studied only briefly there), Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille. They remained close until Bazille was killed in the Franco-Prussian War.
Renoir was successful in gaining admission to the École des Beaux-Arts in April 1862.
That year, his Return of a Boating Party is a bold attempt at a complex composition including bathers, the boating party, and a marine background, which may have been painted on the north coast of France.
In 1864, Renoir had his first painting accepted for exhibition at the Salon in Paris, although it wasn’t until 1868 that he achieved any recognition there. He also made friends with the architect-turned-artist Jules Le Coeur (1832-1882), who welcomed Renoir to his family property near Fontainebleau and its forest, where they went to paint.
In the summer of 1864, Renoir visited the village of Barbizon to paint. While there, he met the Lacaux family who were on holiday, and they commissioned him to paint their daughter, in this superb Portrait of Romaine Lacaux (1864).
The following year he painted this formal portrait of Mademoiselle Sicot (1865).
Clearing in the Woods (1865) is Renoir’s first substantial (surviving) landscape painting, and shows strong influence from Corot. He adopts quite a detailed realist style in this view of a clearing in the midst of massive chestnut trees. These are believed to be near the small village of La Celle-St-Cloud, to the west of Paris not far from Bougival. It’s likely that he painted there in the company of Alfred Sisley, who made two views of the same site in very different style.
In 1866, Renoir painted his friend Jules Le Coeur and his Dogs in the Forest of Fontainebleau. This is unusual among his works, as it was preceded by two studies, and all three were made using the palette knife rather than brushes. This makes it most likely to have been painted before Renoir abandoned the knife and returned to the brush, by the middle of May 1866.
Renoir’s friend Jules Le Coeur started a love affair with Clémence Tréhot, and it was through that friendship that Renoir came to meet Clémence’s younger sister Lise in 1865, when she was seventeen and he was twenty-four. The Tréhots had moved to Paris when Lise was still a child, and her father kept a shop selling lemonade and tobacco.
Lise Tréhot started modelling for Renoir in 1865, and it was probably the following year he painted Lise in a Straw Hat.
Within another year, Lise posed nude for Renoir’s Diana as Huntress (1867), which was rejected by that year’s Salon. Over the next five years, she modelled for at least twenty paintings, and was in effect his only model for female figures during this formative period in his career. She also appears in two paintings by Frédéric Bazille.
Renoir painted The Pont des Arts Paris in April 1867. Its detailed realist view shows this pedestrian bridge from the left bank of the Seine. It had been the first metal bridge in Paris when it was constructed in 1802-04, and connects the Institut de France, whose dome is prominent at the right, with the Louvre, away to the left.
At this time, Renoir was sharing a studio with Bazille. In November that year, Renoir painted Frédéric Bazille Painting at his Easel (1867). He is working on his still life of a dead heron, and in the background is one of Monet’s wintry landscapes.