Pierre Auguste Renoir was the son of a tailor from Limoges. His father decided to move to Paris in 1845, where the young Renoir was sent to work at the age of 13 as an apprentice to a painter in a china-ware factory, where he learned to imitate the great Rococo painters of the 18th century.
Attracted to the Louvre where he studied the paintings of the old masters, he earned some money by copying 18th century paintings. He attended evening classes, and at the age of 21 he became a member of the studio of Charles Gleyre, where he made friends with many of his contemporaries, including Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and Frederic Bazille.
Renoir was influenced, during his first years, by the Barbizon School, as well as Gustave Courbet. However in common with his contemporaries, Renoir was disenchanted with the formal tuition of the studios, and the forest of Fontainbleau, was a working ground for him. His early paintings were not appreciated neither by the critics nor the public. However this was common for all the impressionist artists, and it was not before a decade after the start of their movement, that their revolutionary approach had become accepted.
Renoirs artistic progress was interrupted during the Franco-Prussian War, but soon after the fighting stopped, he took up painting again, and for the next ten years he was very much associated with the Impressionists, where rich colour, delicate brush stokes, and light palette created a highly individual style.
Renoir was much more concerned with human form rather than nature and landscape, which was Monets favourite subject. He loved to show the bustling life of Paris. During a visit to Italy in 1881, Renoir studied Raphaels work and for some years after that his work was characterized by more detailed and structural quality. However by 1880 he moved back to colour and more sensuous handling of paint. Also the nude female figure became his more common subject.
As a boy, Renoir was apprenticed
to a decorator of fine porcelain. he copied onto cups and plates
flowers and other motifs from the eighteenth-century court painter
Boucher. Their fresh pinks and blues, their vivacity, their prettiness
(a word of which Renoir was never afraid) always remained a part
of Renoir's paintings. Of Boucher's Bath of Diana he once
said that he kept going back to it again and again, "as
one returns to one's first love."
Renoir and Impressionism
Both these paintings have something
of impressionism's momentary revelation of the subject and much
of pure impressionism's haze of light fused with atmosphere.
Yet Renoir yielded only reluctantly to this cultivation of transient
effects and shortly he became thoroughly dissatisfied with them.
Most of his figures were caught in repose. Like Degas
in Foyer de la Danse, Renoir continued to feel the need
for classical stability in his compositions; it found its way
into pictures of the early period almost as if without his will.
His figures never quite lost their formal identity within the
quivering luminosity surrounding them.
Return to Tradition
Restless, unsure of his direction,
beginning to feel that in seeking effects of light he had forgotten
"how either to paint or to draw," that in working directly
from nature he had forgotten how to compose, that in impressionism
a painter descended to monotony, Renoir had refused to exhibit
with the group in their shows of 1879, 1880, and 1881. The Italian
pilgrimage of 1882 had a definite goal: the Vatican frescos of
Raphael. They had been an academic shrine ever since Ingres had
proclaimed Raphael's godhead. And they did not disappoint Renoir.
The disciplinary problems he
set himself were to be solved in a painting of bathers in a landscape
upon which he worked for three years, from 1884 to 1887. It
was exhibited at Petit's, a commercial gallery, with great success.
Even most of the impressionist admired it, because Renoir's
suspicions of impressionism as a blind alley had come to be shared
by others of them (not by Monet)
who were hunting their own ways out of its mist.
For Renoir, living and painting
were indivisible. There is a steady correspondence between the
changes in his way of painting and the progressive changes of
his maturity and experience as a human being. His impressionist
pictures with the lovely girls, their happiness, their subjects
of courtship, identify his own young manhood. The shift to new
disciplines in painting coincides with his acceptance of new
personal responsibilities, marriage and fatherhood. But he soon
relented from the severities of his reaction against the "responsibility"
of impressionism. By the end of the 1880's he was working toward
a new manner, coincident with the period in his own life when
the business of settling down had been achieved, when he had
established an adequate security for himself and his family,
and was discovering the quiet and rewarding fulfillments of middle
Renoir : Last Pictures
It is typical of most painters who work over a long period of time that their late work is painted most loosely, with greatest freedom. This was true of Renoir, and the natural tendency was exaggerated by a physical malady that appeared as early as 1881 and had begun to cripple him by 1890. In his old age rheumatism had so paralyzed him that he had to paint in a wheelchair with his brush strapped to his hand. When a foolish visitor asked him how he managed to paint such beautiful pictures under such difficulties, Renoir rebuked him with "One does not paint with one's hands."