One hundred years ago today – on 3 December 1919 – Pierre-Auguste Renoir died in Cagnes, on the Mediterranean coast of France, at the age of 78. Over the last two months, I have been looking at a small selection of his paintings, with particular emphasis on his landscapes, rather than the portraits, nudes and other figurative works for which he is best known. In this last article in my series about him, I will look at some of his most famous paintings.
Renoir started his painting career working not on canvas but on porcelain, in a factory. He eventually trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and at Charles Gleyre’s private academy, where he met and became close friends with Alfred Sisley, Frédéric Bazille and Claude Monet.
During the 1860s, he shared a studio in Paris with Bazille. In November 1867, Renoir painted Frédéric Bazille Painting at his Easel. He is working on his still life of a dead heron, and in the background is one of Monet’s wintry landscapes. Bazille was another of the very promising figurative painters among the French Impressionists, who was tragically killed in combat during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.
Before that war, Renoir often painted in company with Claude Monet. During the summer of 1869, the two of them visited the popular bathing houses on the River Seine known as La Grenouillère, where they painted a group of what were intended to be plein air sketches in preparation for more finished works, to be submitted to the Salon the following year.
Renoir painted at least three different oil sketches of La Grenouillère that summer: that above, which is most similar to Monet’s famous painting now in the National Gallery in London, is in the Oskar Reinhart Collection in Switzerland. These brilliant shimmering images formed from high chroma brushstrokes established Impressionist style, so successfully that the more finished versions were never even started.
Although Renoir was an avid landscape painter throughout his career, from its earliest years it was figurative painting for which he was best known. During the late Spring of 1876, Renoir set himself the task of painting a large group of people at one of the popular dances at the nearby Moulin de la Galette. He worked conventionally, making various studies and sketches near his new rented house and studio in Montmartre.
It’s thought that the final step in his preparations was to paint a sketch in front of the motif, which is now held in a private collection. Back in his studio he then worked that up during May into this larger version, one of his – and Impressionism’s – masterpieces, Bal du moulin de la Galette (Dance at the Moulin de la Galette) (1876). This was exhibited at the Third Impressionist Exhibition, and has become one of the canonical European paintings of the late nineteenth century.
In contrast to his many single-sitting landscape sketches, Renoir’s best known large figurative paintings are often the product of long preparations. During the summer of 1880, Renoir started work on another of his masterpieces, which he didn’t complete until the following year: Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-81), another complex group of figures.
This was set on the Île de Chatou at the Restaurant Fournaise, and funded by commissioned portraits over that period. Among his models were his partner and later wife Aline Charigot (left foreground, with affenpinscher dog), the actress Jeanne Samary (upper right), and fellow artist Gustave Caillebotte (seated, lower right). This work was exhibited at the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition in 1882, where it was praised by several critics.
Renoir had started his career, like most of the French Impressionists, so poor that he was sometimes unable to buy food or paint. His success as a portraitist and better acceptance of his figurative paintings brought him an earlier and more substantial income, enabling him to travel to Algeria and Italy in 1881-82. He managed to introduce himself to the composer Richard Wagner, whose portrait he painted in just over half an hour, in Sicily. Renoir studied the Old Masters in Italy, which were a major influence in the development of his style.
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 the work of Ingres, Raphael, Rubens and Titian, in particular. 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 this new style, although some of its features remained in his subsequent figurative paintings.
Over the same period, about 1881-86, Renoir worked on The Umbrellas, which was more conventionally Impressionist, and much better received. This canvas 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 had developed a good friendship with Berthe Morisot and Her Daughter, Julie Manet, seen here in his double portrait from 1894. Morisot suffered chronic ill health from the time of the Franco-Prussian War. When Renoir painted her here she was only 53. When she died on 2 March the following year (1895), Renoir returned from wintering in Provence to attend her funeral in Paris. Julie’s father Eugène (brother of the painter Édouard Manet) had died three years earlier, leaving her orphaned at the age of sixteen.
By the time that Renoir painted this haunting Self-portrait in 1899, when he turned fifty-eight, his own health was starting to deteriorate. He had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in the early 1890s, and its progression changed the later years of his career. Fortunately by this stage he was able to afford the support necessary to enable him to continue painting. Indeed, if anything his limited mobility drove him to be even more productive.
After long series of treatments in healing spas around France, Renoir moved to the south coast of France, initially wintering there and spending the summer in the family house in Essoyes, his wife’s home town. 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.
Renoir continued to paint many figurative works during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Among them is his 1914 portrait of Tilla Durieux, the Austrian actress born as Ottilie Godeffroy in 1880. At this time, she was enjoying considerable success, having just played the role of Eliza Doolittle in a German language production of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, six months before its British premiere. Like Rembrandt and a few other masters, Renoir’s gestural marks of bright colour capture so well the glistening gold in her opulent clothing.
In 1919, Renoir had been wheeled around the rooms full of paintings in the Louvre, celebrating one of his paintings which had been hung next to a Veronese there. In November, though, he fell ill with pneumonia, and died at Cagnes on 3 December 1919.
Renoir was one of the few painters of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who excelled across all genres. His landscapes start with the Barbizon School and end well into the innovations of modernism. His nudes develop from the great tradition of Titian, and his more complex figurative works are masterful. He was, and remains, one of the greatest European painters of that period.
Previous articles in this series:
I’d like to express my particular appreciation of the largest collection of Renoir’s paintings, the Barnes Foundation, in Philadelphia, PA, which has 181 in total, among them many landscapes which might otherwise have been dispersed across private collections and become inaccessible.