The early 1880s had been a time of great change for Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). He and his partner and favourite model Aline Charigot had their first child in 1885, and he was working on what he intended to be a masterwork, The Large Bathers, in which he introduced a new style derived from his studies of Old Masters in Italy. Sadly, that flopped when he completed it in 1887, by which time he had started to suffer bouts of depression.
In 1886, he exhibited eight paintings in the Salon des XX in Brussels, following which thirty-two were shown in New York, and brought good sales.
The Umbrellas from about 1881-86 is packed not only with people, but their umbrellas too. In parts they are so crushed together that the taller pedestrians are raising them high, to avoid bumping into others. Together they form a dark blue-grey band between the people below and the grey sky above. Analysis of the paint layer has revealed how methodical Renoir was: in the first stage here, he used cobalt blue, then switched to extensive use of synthetic ultramarine for its second stage.
Renoir and his family spent the summer of 1886 in La Roche-Guyon, and then went to Dinard in Brittany, where he painted In Brittany (1886). However, he was clearly unhappy with his paintings from the late summer and early autumn, as he destroyed most of them in October.
If this painting is anything to go by, this exploratory landscape style comes as a bit of a shock. It reminds me of Helen Allingham’s twee country postcards: a far cry from his previously innovative paintings, and from his Impressionist roots.
The following year, Renoir appears to have concentrated on figurative works, with few accessible landscapes surviving.
Washerwoman and Child is a quick informal oil sketch painted in about 1887 which escapes the more sculptured figures which had appeared in his studio work at the time.
Renoir’s portrait of Julie Manet, also known as The Child with a Cat, from 1887, shows the daughter of Berthe Morisot and Eugène Manet (brother of Édouard Manet), born in 1878, which makes her about ten years old at the time. Julie became a painter herself, and wrote a revelatory account of artists of that era in Growing Up With The Impressionists.
Young Girls Playing Badminton from about 1887 is another figurative painting in Renoir’s new classically-inspired style, in which the figures are so sharp against its landscape that they appear cut-out. This didn’t go down well with critics, or his dealer Durand-Ruel. Battledore and Shuttlecock, in French jeu de volant, was the precursor of modern badminton, and had recently become very popular.
In the Luxembourg Gardens from about 1887 developed Renoir’s composition from The Umbrellas above, with a child standing holding a hoop at the right. His figures are growing softer and better integrated with the background again.
In 1888, Renoir visited Paul Cézanne im Aix-en-Provence, where they almost certainly painted landscapes alongside one another. He then spent the summer painting at Argenteuil and Bougival, where he rediscovered his landscape form.
The Seine at Argenteuil (1888) is another view of leisure boating, here painted in a style more similar to the high Impressionist landscapes of Alfred Sisley, with higher chroma coarse brushstrokes laid to form the surface of the water.
At the end of 1888, Renoir’s health gave cause for concern: he suffered his first severe attack of rheumatoid arthritis, which was to trouble him for the rest of his life, and an episode of facial paralysis, which was particularly worrying as he was only 47. Because of these, he spent much of the winter into 1889 with his wife’s family at Essoyes, near the town of Troyes, on a tributary of the River Seine.
The following year, Renoir visited Cézanne at Aix again, and appears to have painted alongside him on several days. Unfortunately it’s not clear which paintings Renoir completed in which year.
Renoir painted at least two versions of this view of Montagne Sainte-Victoire in about 1888-89. That above is now in New Haven, while that below is in Philadelphia. This is the view that became an obsession with Cézanne, here depicted in Renoir’s more conservative style. There are cotton-wool trees in the foreground, with a small group of figures under them in the Philadelphia version. Renoir uses marked aerial perspective and doesn’t flatten the view at all. His brushstrokes show signs of some experimentation, in which they become more ‘organised’, but they remain a far cry from Cézanne’s more radical style.
Renoir’s Dovecote at Bellevue (c 1888-89) shows much greater influence from Cézanne, with a stronger constructive stroke, use of deep ultramarine to give outlines to the trees, and flattening of perspective. Cézanne painted the same motif, from a different angle, in an oil painting which is dated to 1889-90.
Despite these wonderful landscapes, Renoir’s bouts of depression caused him to have great doubts about his own work.
In 1890, though, he had greater success, after the stinging criticism of The Large Bathers. He exhibited at the Salon des XX again, and on 14 April finally married his partner of the last eleven years Aline Charigot. The Renoir family moved to Montmartre, and in the summer they stayed with her family at Essoyes.
Landscape at Vetheuil (c 1890) is a plein air oil sketch with a different approach to brushstrokes. Its water surface is smoother rather than broken, with little attention paid to its to reflections, as would be expected in such a hurried work.
Renoir’s figurative work had settled more too. In his Apple Seller from 1890, above, and In the Meadow (1888-92) below, the figures are softer and not sculpted, and set against a blurry landscape resembling the effect of limited photographic depth of focus, or in modern term bokeh.