Work in Progress: Renoir’s Judgement of Paris

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), The Judgement of Paris (detail) (c 1908-10), oil on canvas, 73 x 92.5 cm, Hiroshima Museum of Art, Hiroshima, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

Relatively few of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s drawings have survived, as he treated them as scrap paper, using what would now be precious artworks to light his stove. One of his few finished oil paintings for which there are still studies and derivatives is his narrative work showing the Judgement of Paris, completed in about 1908-10, although there seems greater uncertainty over its date.

The mythical scene which he depicts is part of a long interlinked story which stretches from the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, the parents of Achilles, to the destruction of the city of Troy. According to some ancient sources, the wedding was celebrated with a great feast on Mount Pelion, attended by most of the gods. The happy couple were given many gifts by the gods, but one, Eris the goddess of discord, had not been invited. As an act of spite at her exclusion, she threw a golden apple ‘of discord’ into the middle of the goddesses, to be given as a reward to ‘the fairest’.

Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), The Golden Apple of Discord (1633), oil on canvas, 181 × 288 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

This is Jacob Jordaens’ The Golden Apple of Discord from 1633, based on a brilliant oil sketch by Rubens. The facially discordant Eris, seen in midair behind the deities, has just made her gift of the golden apple, which is at the centre of the grasping hands, above the table.

At the left, Minerva (Pallas Athene) reaches forward for it. In front of her, Venus, her son Cupid at her knee, points to herself as the goddess most deserving of the apple. On the other side of the table, Juno reaches her hand out for it too. This sets up the beauty contest at the heart of this section of the story, between the goddesses Hera (Juno), Athena (Minerva or Pallas Athene) and Aphrodite (Venus).

Zeus wisely declined the invitation to judge which of the three was the fairest, eventually passing that onerous task to Paris, prince of Troy, and a mortal, who had a recent track record of making good judgements. Being goddesses, the three couldn’t play fair, and each tried to bribe Paris to award them the golden apple.

Paris held his judgement on Mount Ida, where the three goddesses were accompanied by Hermes (Mercury) as their guide. Paris first inspected them clothed; as he was unable to make a decision, the three of them removed their clothing and offered Paris their bribes. Hera offered to make him king of both Europe and Asia, and Athena plied him with wisdom and skill at war. But it was Aphrodite’s inducement to which Paris succumbed: she offered him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, then the wife of the Greek king Menelaus.

The consequence of Paris’s (ill) judgement was that he abducted Helen and took her to Troy, which was the immediate cause of the Greek war against Troy. And the rest is legendary history, culminating in Aeneas founding the precursor of Rome.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Judgement of Paris (1632-35), oil on oak, 144.8 x 193.7 cm, National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

The Judgement of Paris was a very popular theme for paintings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One of my favourite accounts is this relatively late work by Peter Paul Rubens, who made several versions during his career. This dates from 1632-35, and is one of the finest paintings in London’s National Gallery. The three goddesses are, from the left, Athena with her shield, Aphrodite, and Hera with her peacock. Paris is just about to give Aphrodite the golden apple of discord, as Hermes leans on the tree behind.

Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754–1829), The Judgement of Paris (1820), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

The story remained quite popular with artists into the nineteenth century, when its depiction started to stray from convention, as shown in this version by the great narrative painter Jean-Baptiste Regnault in 1820. However, the same attributes such as Hera’s peacock are still present.

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), The Judgement of Paris (1862-4), oil on canvas, 15 x 21 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Before Paul Cézanne became an Impressionist in the 1870s, he painted several dark canvases with his palette knife, in his ‘dark period’ of couillarde (‘ballsy’) works. In 1862-64, he painted this mature approach to this story. Paris, seated at the right, appears to be handing the golden apple to Aphrodite, second from left, while Hera modestly keeps her back turned towards him, and Athena is trying to seduce him and take the apple. It seems unlikely that Renoir saw this painting, though.

Renoir seems to have started to sketch ideas for his version of the story soon after he moved into his new house in Cagnes. Unfortunately, the sequence of his sketches isn’t clear, and what has been proposed doesn’t synchronise with proposed dates for his finished painting.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), The Judgement of Paris (study) (date not known), media not known, 82 x 99.7 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

This undated study, apparently made in pen and ink, starts to develop his composition, with the three goddesses and Paris seated in front of them.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), The Judgement of Paris (c 1908), black, red and white chalk on off-white, medium-weight, medium-texture paper, 19.3 x 24.5 cm, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

This fine chalk sketch thought to be from about 1908 appears to have been made primarily for compositional purposes, and contains the same four figures.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), The Judgement of Paris (study) (1915), media not known, 67.3 x 92.1 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

This chalk sketch adds the figure of Hermes, and puts the other figures into positions even closer to those of Renoir’s finished painting. However, this drawing is claimed to date from 1915.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), The Judgment of Paris (c 1908-10), oil on canvas, 73 x 92.5 cm, Hiroshima Museum of Art, Hiroshima, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

This is Renoir’s finished painting, with its three slightly soft-focus nudes against a background of rather blurry countryside. Paris has accepted Aphrodite’s bribe, and is here awarding her the golden apple provided by Eris from the garden of the Hesperides. Watching on is Hermes, complete with his winged helmet and sandals, and caduceus.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), The Judgement of Paris (detail) (c 1908-10), oil on canvas, 73 x 92.5 cm, Hiroshima Museum of Art, Hiroshima, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

This detail shows the goddesses’ softly textured flesh, and the lack of crisp edges which is distinctive of Renoir’s style at the time.

When Renoir was living in Cagnes, he was a close friend of the sculptor Aristide Maillol, who encouraged the painter to develop sculptures based on his paintings, and introduced Renoir to Richard Guino, a young Catalan artist who then worked with Renoir to create derivative 3D works of art. By this time, Renoir’s rheumatoid arthritis was so severe that he was confined to a wheelchair much of the time, and there was no way that he would have been able to make any sculptures himself. Instead, Renoir directed Guino’s hands to shape the clay and other materials.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) and Richard Guino (1890-1973), The Judgement of Paris (1914), sculpture material and dimensions not known, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

This bas relief, I think created in clay, was formed by the young sculptor under the direction of Renoir, to metamorphose his 2D painting of the Judgement of Paris into 3D.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) and Richard Guino (1890-1973), The Judgement of Paris (1914), sculpture in bronze?, dimensions not known, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

That was apparently cast in bronze (I believe) to create this relief. Renoir had no need for a 3D printer.