With his portraiture work bringing in a steady income, in 1881 Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) could at last afford to travel. Instead of going to London, in March and April he visited Algeria with Paul-Auguste Lhote.
The Mosque, also known as Arab Festival, from 1881, shows some sort of public performance taking place on the ruins of the old ramparts of the city of Algiers. There are musicians, dancers, and a large group of spectators. It has clear influence from the Orientalist paintings of Delacroix, but is perhaps best seen as one of the rare examples of Impressionist Orientalism. Renoir’s small strokes of bright colour and energetic work with the palette knife give it a strong feeling of movement – and it so impressed Claude Monet that he bought it from Durand-Ruel in 1900.
Field of Banana Trees is another unusual work which Renoir painted during his visit to Algeria in 1881. He may not have realised it at the time, but this grove of banana palms is extremely atypical of North Africa, although it gave him a wonderful opportunity to assemble brushstrokes to form its vegetation. When exhibited later in Paris, Manet himself praised the painting.
Shortly after Renoir’s return from Algeria, Durand-Ruel purchased five of the views that he had painted there. He also had two of his portraits (painted in France) accepted for the Salon.
Renoir spent the summer of 1881 on the Wargement estate, for the third year in succession. Then at the end of October, he (probably in company with his partner Aline Charigot) travelled to Italy, staying first in Venice before touring more widely and viewing the Old Masters in Rome, and frescoes from Pompeii in Naples. He was particularly interested in the paintings of Raphael, which seems surprising. At the end of the year, he visited Calabria and the island of Capri.
The first of several Impressionists to visit Venice, Renoir chose this view of the Piazzetta, beside the main Piazza San Marco, from over the water in San Giorgio in his Doge’s Palace, Venice (1881). The tops of the roofs follow the (horizontal) centreline, with the Campanile reaching well above that, and various boats below the band of buildings.
Renoir’s canvas has an aspect ratio of 1.24:1, considerably more square than the golden ratio, and far from the panoramic proportions that might be expected for such a shallow view. This left him with substantial bands of largely blue sky and vacant water, above and below the buildings and boats. The reason for this choice is unclear, and the vague areas of colour shown in the bottom band of uninterrupted water cannot represent reflections.
Although this painting appears very loose in its facture, Renoir has included a lot of quite fine detail, such as the individual arches and columns for the whole of the front of the Doge’s Palace, even some of the tracery in the windows above. This would have required multiple sessions in front of the motif, or more probably several days spent in a studio.
Its colours are bright, and broad areas such as the sky and water made up from strokes of unmixed colours, to give them a coarse chromatic texture which is typical of Renoir’s style at the time. All these effects contribute to the overall impression of spontaneity and speed of execution.
Bay of Naples, Evening (1881) was painted during Renoir’s stay of several weeks in Naples. He had been unable to paint when in Rome, but once he arrived in this city was able to complete figurative works and two matching landscapes of the bay. Although it was recognised that these two views represent morning and evening, for some years they were confused, and this painting was thought (incorrectly) to show the bay in the morning.
When he was in Palermo, on the island of Sicily, in January 1882, Renoir took the opportunity to arrange to paint Richard Wagner’s portrait. At the end of the month, he returned to France, to paint the famous cliffs at l’Estaque.
Renoir followed a succession of artists, many inspired by the ukiyo-e print of Hokusai’s Great Wave, in painting The Wave on the Normandy coast in the summer of 1882. This wasn’t the first time that Renoir had painted this motif: that was in 1879, with another version in 1881. But this is his most vivaceous and unconstrained.
Renoir painted the occasional still life through most of his career. Chrysanthemums, painted in 1881-82, is of particular interest for his use of pigments. Although the new cadmium yellow was affordable at this time, he preferred real Naples yellow still. His greens include both viridian and malachite. This is probably one of the last paintings by a major artist to use malachite green, which was replaced by more modern synthetic pigments.
In the Spring of 1882, Renoir visited the south of France, where he became ill with pneumonia. He therefore travelled on with Aline Charigot for a short spell in Algeria, but while there on this occasion he concentrated on figurative work rather than landscapes.
During the summer of 1882, Renoir visited the home of his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel at Dieppe. The latter had commissioned Renoir to paint portraits of each of his five children: this is Marie-Thérèse Durand-Ruel Sewing (1882), the eldest of them. She is wholly absorbed in her needlework, holding it close, suggesting she may be myopic. She is finely dressed, a little heavily maybe for the fine summer’s day in the garden.
Later that year, Renoir painted The Bridge at Argenteuil in Autumn (1882), close to another bridge over the river which Monet had a particular affection for.
The opening months of 1883 were Renoir’s most productive period, although largely in portraits and other figurative work. During April, he had a solo exhibition at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris featuring seventy of his paintings, and in the early summer nine of his paintings were exhibited in a collection of Impressionist works in London.
After a period in Normandy during August, Renoir stayed on the Channel Isles of Jersey and Guernsey in the late summer, where he painted the south-east coast of Guernsey in particular.
For his portrait of his partner Aline Charigot in By the Seashore (1883), Renoir most probably painted her in the studio, and took its background from the Normandy coast near Dieppe. This shows the growing divergence in his paintings during the 1880s, with landscapes becoming increasingly soft and high in chroma, whilst his figures remained strongly realist in style, emphasised by his “dry” manner.
His figures are looser as they become more distant in Children on the Seashore, Guernsey, one of several beach scenes which he sketched in oils during his visit to Guernsey in 1883.
Sunset at Douarnenez, from around 1883, is a classical Impressionist view looking into the setting sun. Renoir also painted this on the Channel coast.
At the end of 1883, Renoir and Monet travelled along the French and Italian Mediterranean coast. On their way back in the late winter (early 1884), they both visited Paul Cézanne in Aix-en-Provence.
Renoir’s mother, who lived in Louveciennes, was ill during 1884, and he travelled frequently to be with her, while continuing to work in his studio in the centre of Paris. He also took time to study the landscape paintings of Camille Corot, whose role in the development of Impressionism he clearly recognised.
Another example of Renoir’s “dry” manner in figures is this delightful group portrait in Children’s Afternoon at Wargemont from 1884. Look through the window, though, and the world outside is still thoroughly Impressionist.
Renoir started work on The Large Bathers in 1884, but didn’t complete it until 1887. It was intended to be the first of a new style of figurative paintings which he had devised from his studies of Old Masters, including those of Ingres, Raphael, Rubens and Titian. Its figures appear to be sculpted, and it is thought that at least one sculpture, a lead relief by Girardon, was an influence on them. It features two of his favourite models: his partner Aline Charigot, who is the seated blonde, and the painter Suzanne Valadon.
Sadly, this painting was savaged by the critics, and Renoir was forced to abandon his new style.
Renoir and Aline Charigot had been a couple since 1879, and in the Spring of 1885 they had their first child, a boy they named Pierre. They spent a longer holiday together at La Roche-Guyon, and visited Aline’s family in Essoyes in the autumn/fall. He worked more intensively on The Large Bathers, and started to suffer bouts of depression.
Renoir’s Maternity (1885) is the complete opposite of The Large Bathers: informal and intimate, a touching record of his family life.
Despite this setback in his figurative painting, Renoir continued to paint magnificent landscapes, such as his Sea and Cliffs from about 1885, with its very visible and organised brushstrokes and high chroma.