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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.

Renoir’s 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 Monet’s favourite subject. He loved to show the bustling life of Paris. During a visit to Italy in 1881, Renoir studied Raphael’s 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 entered the studio of a painter named Charles Gleyre in 1862. As a student and then as a young painter with no resources and no patrons he kept himself alive by doing occasional porcelain painting and some hack commercial work, including the decoration of window blinds. Monet was having the same struggle and the two men were good friends. For a few years Renoir grouped about, imitating photographs briefly and working for a while in the manner of Delacroix. He later destroyed these pseudo romantic productions, and the earliest Renoirs we have, from around the middle 1860's, show how much he learned from Courbet. Renoir's Bather with Griffon painted in 1870 and exhibited in the Salon that year, belongs to this early group, which seem like preparatory work if they are thought of in context with Renoir's later career. But independently Bather with Griffon can hold its own in the company of great paintings of the nude at any time. If it lacks anything, it is the full individuality of style that marks a work of art as completely the artist's own.

Renoir and Impressionism


By 1870 Renoir was beginning to explore, with Monet, effects of light and air, and ways of representing them with broken color. By the time of the first group exhibition his impressionist manner was fully developed, and he continued working impressionistically until 1882.

The Swing of 1876 has the dappled light, the diffused forms, the young grace, the air of courtship, typical of his work in this period. In the same year, and as an ambitious showpiece, he painted the Dacing at the Moulin de la Galette which was exhibited in the third impressionist exhibition of 1877.


The Swing, 1876


Dancing at the Moulin de la Galette, 1876

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.

Renoir had by now found some patrons. An influential one was the publisher Charpentier, in whose garden The Swing had been painted. Renoir was beginning to find portrait commissions too, and in order to further these Madame Charpentier commissioned him to do a portrait of herself and her two little girls (below right).It was submitted to the Salon of 1879 and because of the social prominance of the sitter it received a good position and was a success. He set about deliberately in the portrait of Madame Charpentier to paint a picture that would please conventional taste without prostituting his talent. He did not regard it as a lowering of standards or a denial of principles to modify his impressionistic manner to accord more closely with Salon standards. The result was a fine portrait even if it is not Renoir's most exciting work.

With plenty of commissions coming his way by the end of the 1870's, when he was forty years old, Renoir had reached the point where most painters would have industriously followed up their successes. But Renoir was full of dissatisfactions with the kind of painting he was doing. Renoir was ready to abandon the light touch of impressionism just when the first collectors were beginning to be attracted to it. A trip to Italy in 1882 verified his suspicions of impressionism and put an end to his impressionist period.

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.

In their breadth and amplitude and definition, their "simplicity and grandeur," he said, they confirmed his dissatisfactions with impressionism. He saw too the Pompeiian Paintings that had given such impetus to the classical revival a hundred years before, that had "removed the cataracts" form the eyes of David when he went to Rome as a young painter trained in the eighteenth-century tradition. And by chance Renoir also stumbled across a book now well known to painters but then obscure, a late fiurteenth-century handbook on the craft of painting by Cennino Cennini, a follower of Giotto, who described in great detail the technique of egg tempera painting, a technique demanding the clearest, the most concise definition of form, allowing for no suggestion, dictating implacably closed contours. Renoir had always admired Ingres line, and now in the light of these Italian revelations he discovered new virtues in Ingres's meticulously controlled surfaces as well.

Renoir determined to subject himself to a period of discipline, to learn again how to draw, paint, and compose. Dance at Bougival, 1883, painted on his return from Italy, has a new solidity and definition in the two dancing figures, although the seated ones in the background are similar to those in the Moulin de la Galette in their softer, airier, form. Renoir was equally determined, as a matter of practical business, to make a success in the Salon instead of directing himself toward the handful of art lovers who were "capable" of liking a painting without Salon approval.


Dance at Bougival
1883

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.

Renoir : Fulfillment

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 age.

With the lesson of the Bathers behind him, Renoir returned to simple, intimate subjects, painting again his personal response to them without sacrificing what he had regained through formal discipline. There is no ambiguity to the forms; every volume is defined in space and in its exact relationship to other volumes. In Young Girls at the Piano (1892), the figure relationship of the two girls formerly painted in Moulin de la Galette is restudied to give it the formality of the Bathers. The formality is disguised; it is animated by the vivacious charm of the early masterpiece, but the formality is there, and it makes of Young Girls at the Piano something more than a charming picture, just as it is something more than a formal exercise.


Young Girls at the Piano
1892

Renoir : Last Pictures

In Renoir's final period, he returned to expressionism which surged into full undisguised statements. From the point of view of the usual painting of the female nude, his painting Bathers, finished in 1918, shortly before Renoir's death at the age of seventy eight, is grotesque. The swollen belly, the massive thighs, the great heavy feet, the billowing construction of flesh drenched in the color of strawberries and oranges against the acid greens of the tumultous background -- these are strong fare. By one standard of comparison Renoir exaggareated his former virtues beyond the point of tolerance and to the point of absurdity; by another, he has reached the only logical conclusion to the basic conception that he started nearly fifty years earlier.


Bathers
1918

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."

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