When most people reach the age of sixty-five, and are literally crippled with arthritis, you’d expect them at least to ease off. That seems to have been the last thing that Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) was tempted to do. His output of paintings continued unabated, with many figures and nudes, and an abundance of fresh landscapes, many of them oil sketches apparently painted in front of the motif.
He wintered in Cagnes from 1905-06, and was visited there by Maurice Denis and Ker-Xavier Roussel, two former members of Les Nabis.
Renoir’s figurative work from this period has long been recognised, with paintings such as Promenade from 1906 having a distinctive softness, lightness and silken sheen. Marvellous though they are, they appear quite staid and conservative alongside his landscapes.
In Two Figures on a Path from about 1906, the figures are now staffage amid wild and wispy foliage which threatens to engulf them completely. Renoir continues to paint in thin layers, with the lightness of touch of a watercolourist.
Although he was close to the coast, and later could be driven out by his chauffeur, Renoir seems to have painted marine landscapes more seldom than in the past, for example during his visits to the north coast and Guernsey. The Port of Marseille, Fort Saint-Jean from 1906 is a marvellously loose oil sketch of crowds at the waterside and yachts, on a fine and sunny day at Marseille, just along the coast.
By 1907, Renoir had decided to settle in Cagnes, and in June bought the small estate of Les Collettes there. His first task was to get a suitable house built, and that was ready for him to occupy in November 1908.
Renoir rented a flat in the Maison de la Poste, Cagnes from April 1903 until he was able to move into his new house at Les Collettes. He painted numerous views of the building, including this oil sketch in 1906-07.
Over this period, Renoir painted three large canvases of Titianesque reclining nudes. The earlier two were modelled by Gabrielle, his wife’s cousin and their nurse/nanny, but the last, Large Nude from 1907, also known as Nude on Cushions, is different. This demonstrates well the sumptuous appearance so characteristic of his late nudes and other figurative paintings. Surprisingly, this painting wasn’t exhibited until 1913, by which time it had already been rated by critics as one of his major works.
Near Cagnes from the period 1907-19 shows a coastal bay well before this area became so heavily developed. Despite the ravages of the rheumatoid arthritis in his hands, Renoir’s brushstrokes are plentiful and vigorous.
Renoir is thought to have painted this more structured sketch of Maison de la Poste, Cagnes in about 1907, with its unusually fine strokes of contrasting colour in the foliage of the trees and shrubs.
Several of these oil sketches are just titled Landscape at Cagnes, here one from about 1907-08. Again he uses strokes of contrasting colours among the diffuse greens of the trees and meadow, with the figure of a woman wearing a broad-rimmed hat and red dress at the lower right.
In 1908, at the suggestion of Aristide Maillol and Vollard, the dealer, Renoir made two wax sculptures.
Once Renoir had moved into his new house, he started painting a series of views of The Farm at Les Collettes, Cagnes, including this from the period 1908-14. These all show the original farmhouse; he doesn’t appear to have painted the new architect-designed house in which he lived. In the foreground are some of the old trees which he had been keen to save. The family had several gardeners, but much of the land which they had bought at Les Collettes was left to grow wild. Its gardens were productive: they had their own olive oil pressed for them locally from their olive trees, for example.
I don’t know whether the Renoir family harvested their own grapes too, or whether The Vineyards at Cagnes from 1908 shows their land, or a vineyard nearby.
Medlar Trees from about 1908 shows an unusual tree, which was introduced in Roman times. Medlar fruit are a traditional dish, which are left to ‘blet’ to soften their acidic flavour before being eaten. Bletting is also accomplished by exposure to frost, making it ideal for picking in winter. The fruit became unpopular by the nineteenth century, when it had been superceded by apples and others. Renoir captures well the unusual appearance of these trees.
Few of Renoir’s drawings and preparatory sketches have survived, mostly because he discarded them, using many for lighting the stove, for instance. This fine chalk sketch was made primarily for compositional purposes, for the finished painting below. It contains just the thee nude women with Paris presenting the golden apple to the middle of the three.
For such a prolific painter of nudes, it would be easy to suspect that Renoir’s account of The Judgment of Paris, from about 1908-10, was just a platform for three voluptuous beauties. In fact, he shows here his skill as a narrative painter, in presenting a carefully composed moment of peripeteia.
After Paris has accepted Aphrodite’s bribe, of Helen (of Troy, to come), he is shown awarding her the golden apple provided by Eris (discord) from the garden of the Hesperides. Watching on is Hermes, complete with his winged helmet and sandals, and caduceus. The body language makes this a charged moment in history.
Renoir’s landscapes from the south capture the light there well, but of them Glade from about 1909 expresses the dry heat of the middle of the day, which is melting the form of these trees.
Renoir had become familiar with the old Olives of Cagnes long before he painted them here in 1909. Indeed, it was these olives which made him choose the estate at Les Collettes. He loved the rural tranquillity of Cagnes, and when it was proposed to clear the property at Les Collettes of its ancient olive trees, he bought the estate to save them.
In 1910, Renoir had a special mobile easel constructed so that he could continue to paint. He travelled to Munich with his family to paint family portraits, and whilst there took the opportunity to view paintings by Rubens on display at the Alte Pinakothek. However, by the time that he returned home to Cagnes he was unable to walk at all.
For the long summer season of the Venice Biennale, thirty-seven of Renoir’s paintings were exhibited there.
The penultimate painting which I have chosen from this period in Renoir’s career was painted a little way along the coast from Cagnes, and shows a Landscape, La Gaude (c 1910). This village is one of a small number described as ‘perched’, as its houses tumble down the hillside. Are there shades of Cézanne’s views of villages near Aix-en-Provence, perhaps?