A guide to the artist who was one of the founding fathers of Impressionism, and is famed today for his lush depictions of female sensuality — featuring works offered at Christie’s.
Renoir’s early life was shaped by poverty
Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born in 1841 in Limoges in south-west France. His father was a tailor and his mother was a dressmaker, which is perhaps significant given that he would go on to become fascinated by fashion.
In his early life he was appreciated more for his singing than for his drawing. He took music lessons until his family encountered financial difficulties, which forced him to leave school and begin work as a painter in a porcelain factory.
As a young man Renoir moved to Paris, entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and later joined the studio of Charles Gleyre (1806-1874). Although he sometimes didn’t have enough money to buy paint, he lived close to the Louvre, where he enjoyed studying the works of the Old Masters.
He was one of the main founders of Impressionism
In 1869 Renoir began sketching beside the water at La Grenouillère, outside Paris, with Claude Monet. This was a seminal moment in the history of art as the two men simultaneously developed several of the theories, techniques and practices that would give rise to Impressionism, including using loose brushstrokes to capture the effects of light and movement on the trees and water at various times of day.
Renoir’s sun-dappled Sentier dans le bois, painted in 1874, is quintessentially Impressionist, focussing on the artist’s fleeting sensations before nature. The vibrating tissue of broken brushstrokes, a revolutionary departure from Salon norms, evokes the flickering play of sunlight as well as the gentle rustling of the breeze.
Renoir’s Impressionist work was rejected by the Salon
On occasion during the 1860s, Renoir submitted paintings that were accepted into the famous Salon exhibitions, as did Monet. But as their painterly experiments gathered pace in the 1870s, both artists found their works were repeatedly rejected.
Eventually, they ceased submitting pictures for consideration and when Monet started his own independent artists’ society, which became known as the Impressionists, Renoir was one of the first to join. He displayed six paintings in the First Impressionist Exhibition in April 1874.
Renoir painted figures in fashionable dress, positioning his models in modern settings: crowded boulevards, cafés, theatres, sun-dappled parks, and elegantly appointed domestic interiors. Even when the setting is little more than a curtain of greenery, the play of light across figure and ground alike suggests a specific, fleeting moment.
Renoir mixed with the Parisian elite, from writers to restaurateurs to bankers
Renoir’s ability to capture the crowd garnered the attention of the Parisian elite. Soon his list of patrons included such notable figures as patissier, restaurateur and collector Eugène Murer, and Madame Georges Charpentier, whose salons were attended by the likes of Flaubert, Zola and Manet.
In 1878, at Charpentier’s home, Renoir met banker Paul Bérard. Renoir regularly visited Bérard’s country house in Wargemont where he experimented with seascapes and still lifes, as well as painting portraits of Bérard’s children.
His 1881-1882 trip abroad was a watershed moment
During the 1870s Renoir had painted several ambitious Orientalist scenes, including a somewhat risqué transposition of Delacroix’s masterpiece, Les femmes d’Alger. In 1881 he followed in the footsteps of Delacroix by travelling to Algeria, becoming the only one of the Impressionists ever to experience the region first-hand.
From Algeria he travelled to Madrid to study the paintings of Velázquez, before heading to Italy where he realised a long-held ambition by viewing masterpieces by Raphael, Titian and and other Renaissance masters. He also studied the ancient frescoes of Pompeii, and travelled to Sicily, where he visited Richard Wagner, and painted the composer’s portrait in just 35 minutes. It was on this trip that he began to seek what he recalled as ‘broad harmonies without any longer preoccupying myself with the small details which dim the sunlight’.
Renoir returned to France a changed man, adopting a linear classical style influenced by the work of Ingres and Boucher, working more in a studio than in the open air, and increasingly focusing on mythology and the female form.
Renoir turned away from Impressionism, but the critical reaction was lukewarm
‘I had wrung Impressionism dry,’ Renoir told Ambroise Vollard late in his life. ‘I finally came to the conclusion that I knew neither how to paint nor draw.’ This realisation sparked a three-year period of intense questioning and experimentation, during which Renoir reintroduced traditional notions of draughtsmanship into his art.
He abandoned scenes of modern life, accepted only a very few portrait commissions, and left many smaller figure studies unfinished. Although he continued to produce landscapes and still-lifes, his attention was focused on a series of major figure paintings, in which he consolidated his new, linear style
By the opening weeks of 1887, the artist had put the finishing touches on Les grandes baigneuses, the culmination of his series of sculptural nudes in impressionistically rendered landscapes. He had high hopes for the monumental painting, which he had worked on for three years, and told Bérard that his goal was to ‘beat Raphael’. When the painting was exhibited in May at the Galerie Georges Petit, however, critical response was mixed.
Renoir had three sons, including the film-maker Jean Renoir
By early 1888, Renoir had changed direction yet again, pronouncing to his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, that ‘I have taken up again, never to abandon it, my old style, soft and light of touch.’ From the 1890s, there was a fresh emphasis on colour and sensuality in his paintings of female bathers, domestic scenes and the carefree, idyllic lives of pretty bourgeois girls.
In 1890, Renoir married Aline Victorine Charigot, a model for one of the figures in Luncheon of the Boating Party(1880-81). She was 20 years his junior and bore him three sons — Pierre (1885-1952), who became an actor; Jean (1894-1979), who would become one of France’s greatest film-makers; and Claude (1901-1969), who also worked in the film industry before becoming a ceramic artist. Jean and Claude were used by their father as models from a young age, with the younger boy sitting for 90 works.
Gabrielle Renard, nanny to Renoir’s youngest child, became his muse and studio assistant
Gabrielle Renard, a distant cousin of Renoir’s wife, joined the household in 1894 as governess to the couple’s infant son, Jean. She quickly became an indispensable member of the family, as well as the artist’s favourite model.
Over two decades Renoir depicted Renard reading, sewing, or caring for children, as a washerwoman in the French countryside, and as a goddess in The Judgment of Paris. She was frequently portrayed as an object of erotic desire. Latterly, as Renoir worked in the studio, Renard acted as his assistant.
Between 1907 and 1911, Renoir painted several canvases of Renard loosely clad in a semi-transparent white chemise that falls open to reveal her ample form. Gabrielle au miroir (above), painted circa 1910, once hung in the living room of Peggy and David Rockefeller’s New York home.
Henri Matisse visited Renoir often
From 1907 Renoir, who was suffering from rheumatoid athritis, spent his winters in Cagnes-sur-Mer on the French Riviera, and his summers in a village in the Champagne region. He first met Henri Matisse in late 1917, and the younger man became a frequent visitor to Cagnes until Renoir’s death two years later.
Matisse described Les baigneuses, painted 1918-19 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), as ‘the loveliest nudes ever painted’, and was greatly influenced by Renoir’s studio masquerades, which in turn drew from Delacroix and Orientalism. When Matisse began his own series of odalisques in 1919, he followed Renoir’s example by posing his favourite models in the intimate surroundings of his studio, with no pretence at a plausible ethnography of costume or setting.
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Renoir lived to see his work hang in the Louvre
Over the course of his life Renoir painted several thousand paintings. Although he quickly found commercial success, he seemed to be driven primarily by his enjoyment of the act of painting. He once remarked to his teacher, Gleyre, ‘If painting were not a pleasure to me I should certainly not do it’.
Shortly before he died in 1919 he visited the Louvre, where his work was now hung alongside the Old Masters he had long admired.