In 1896, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) celebrated his 55th birthday with his son Jean, who wasn’t quite eighteen months old at the time. He travelled to Bayreuth to attend the Wagner Festival there, but apparently grew bored by the music. In November, his mother died at the age of 89.
Throughout this period, Renoir continued his steady stream of portraits and nudes, whose style changed relatively little. This is shown in his wonderful group portrait of The Artist’s Family (1896). His wife Aline stands overseeing the small crowd, with her cousin Gabrielle Renard crouching with the young Jean in the foreground.
His oil landscapes became more similar in appearance to watercolours, as seen in Landscape with Woman Gardening from about 1896. The crouching woman almost merges into the flowers around her, and Renoir’s brushstrokes are light and diffuse. Gone are the dark outlines to forms which he had experimented with in response to his sessions with Paul Cézanne.
The Port of La Rochelle (1896) is a fine plein air oil sketch of this historic port half way up the Bay of Biscay.
For three years, since the death of his friend Gustave Caillebotte, Renoir as his executor had been looking for a public gallery which would accept the donation of Caillebotte’s wonderful collection of Impressionist paintings. In 1896-97, he was finally successful in finding a home for the majority of the works in the Luxembourg Palace, but twenty-nine of them were refused until long after Renoir’s death; they were finally purchased by Albert C Barnes to become treasures of the Barnes Foundation.
Renoir spent the summer in Essoyes, but when cycling he fell and broke his right arm.
In about 1897-98, Renoir painted his friend Henry Lerolle’s two daughters Yvonne and Christine Lerolle at the Piano. The two paintings behind them are both by Edgar Degas: that on the left is one of his paintings of horse-racing, and that on the right of ballet dancers, which were presumably in Lerolle’s collection.
Renoir continued to develop his style and technique. In his Landscape After Corot from 1897-98, he has tried to emulate the colours and brushwork of this great landscape artist, whose trees are so distinctive. Although Corot’s are invariably constructed on an anatomical basis, Renoir appears to have concentrated on their overall impression rather than the fine detail of his technique.
In 1898, Renoir travelled to Holland, where he particularly appreciated Vermeer’s paintings but was less impressed by those of Rembrandt. At the end of the year, he had a severe exacerbation of his rheumatoid arthritis immobilising his right arm, which had been broken a year earlier. He therefore travelled to Cagnes-sur-Mer, on the Mediterranean coast near Nice, for the early part of 1899.
Woman and Child on the Grass from 1898 shows further softening in his depiction of figures, with a landscape background built from patches of constructive strokes, which he had gained from painting with Cézanne at Aix-en-Provence.
Following a winter away from the cold, Renoir was able to paint outdoors again in 1899. However, he fell out with Edgar Degas, who had become increasingly withdrawn as he grew older.
Renoir painted this haunting Self-portrait in 1899, when he turned fifty-eight.
As he approached the turn of the century, Renoir’s Landscape with Chapel, Cagnes (1899) shows his lightness of touch, and the contrasting crisp detail of the chapel and other buildings, against more diffuse vegetation. Renoir was to move to Cagnes in a few years to ease his arthritis. On the French Mediterranean coast near to the city of Nice, this small town was to be painted later by Chaim Soutine and Henri-Edmond Cross.
Renoir hadn’t expected to be able to take part in the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, but after further treatment sessions in the baths at Aix-les-Bains, he changed his mind and exhibited eleven of his paintings there. He was elevated to the rank of Knight in the Legion of Honour. But his arthritis was relentless, and by this time the joints in his hands and arms had become quite deformed as the disease process destroyed them.
One of his finest landscapes painted using this new light style is this view of the grounds of the palace at Versailles, completed at some time during the period 1900-05.
This Landscape from the same period develops its trees from Renoir’s earlier painting in the style of Corot, with their foliage evanescing into the air.
Springtime in Essoyes from about 1900 employs a similar style, with the canopies of the large trees developing their fresh Spring foliage.
The last painting I have selected from this period is Renoir’s Landscape in the Midi from about 1900. There are two figures on the road leading into this picture. Both are shown not by virtue of their own details, but as near-white cutouts from the surrounding browns of the countryside, as is a small tree in the centre of the canvas. Renoir was continuing to innovate in his unusual landscapes.