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Renoir People Seated under a Tree in the Jardin du Midi

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
French, 1841-1919

People Seated under a Tree in the Jardin du Midi

oil on canvas
13 x 16 in. (33 x 41 cm.)

This idyllic landscape was painted c.1919, towards the end of Renoir’s life, when he was living at Les Collettes in Cagnes-sur-Mer in the South of France. His final few years were filled with a renewed creative energy despite having lived with a progressive degenerative illness since 1888. Rare film footage and photographs shows just how physically frail Renoir had become: his gaunt face the result of losing his teeth and not being able to eat solid foods. He could barely hold an upright posture, even while seated in his wheelchair. His hands were gnarled, his fingers frozen in place, and he gripped his paint brush, not with the tips of his fingers as one would expect, but almost rigid in his right fist. Pieces of torn up cloth were tied around his knuckles, perhaps to offer some support. This was all the result of his rheumatoid arthritis. And yet his late period paintings like People Seated under a Tree in the Jardin du Midi exude a joy and ease with the world with no sense of his paintings being expressions of someone experiencing a chronic health crisis.

The garden in this painting may have been Renoir’s own. He was extraordinarily skilled at capturing an idyllic, everyday scene and he painted quickly, evident in how the paint has been applied to the canvas, in a gestural and easy manner. He had said: “I love greasy oil pigments … that is why I love working in oils”. Oils were a medium which he used to great effect, particularly when conveying the sensuality of his famous nudes, and his landscapes also benefitted from this confident touch. In the landscape scene shown here the physical presence of the seated figure wearing a broad-brimmed hat is indicated with a few, subtle strokes, rapidly applied. This small painting is extraordinarily evocative of a specific place, capturing the distinctive light and vegetation of Southern France.

People Seated under a Tree in the Jardin du Midi evokes Renoir’s love of the Old Masters, especially the colorists like Titian and Rubens. A few years prior to executing this landscape, he visited the Pinakothek (today, the Alte Pinakothek) in Munich, where he saw many examples of the work of the great Flemish master, Peter Paul Rubens. Renoir already intimately knew first-hand of this Master’s paintings in the Louvre, having spent considerable time as a young artist copying Rubens’s monumental series of canvases of the life of the Queen, Marie de’ Medici. He was also fascinated with the art of the 19th century French Romantic artist Eugene Delacroix, and his stylistic references to both Rubens and Delacroix is evident in the Jardin du Midi. Renoir would spend all his life searching for “the secrets of the [old] masters” even though he was widely considered by his peers and the public to be a modern Great Master himself. Renoir died on 3 December 1919 at Les Collettes. At his death over 700 paintings were found in his studio.

This painting is recorded in Guy-Patrice and Michel Dauberville, Renoir:Catalogue Raisonne des Tableaux, Pastels, Dessins et Aquarelles V(2014), no. 3880.


April 2024 marks the 150th anniversary of the very first Impressionist exhibition that was organized by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his close friend Claude Monet along with Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, and other artists. The exhibition was not well received by the critics but the artists who took part would become among the most significant and recognizable names of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They remain so today, and because of this it is impossible to go back to that time when their works were so outside the mainstream, to appreciate just how groundbreaking they were. During his lifetime Renoir would find fortune and fame and be considered one of the greatest living painters, revered by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, who both owned his works and felt his influence.

Renoir was born in 1841 in Limoges, a town about 250 miles (400km) south of Paris, and which had been renowned for its porcelain production since the 1770s. A few years after his birth his family moved to Paris. Unlike many of his contemporaries who came from decidedly middle and upper-class backgrounds, Renoir was born into poverty. His father was a tailor, his mother a seamstress’s assistant, and the young Renoir was forced to leave school aged 12 to find work. He was given a job at Lévy-Frères, a Paris porcelain factory, where he would decorate their wares in the style of the French Old Masters: Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard, all artists whose work was associated with a joyful frivolity. Renoir lived close to the Louvre, which housed the most astonishing collection of art from antiquities to present day. Its collection would become central to Renoir’s artistic development, especially once he received permission to sit and copy the ancient Roman sculptures, and the paintings of the Renaissance. He was enamored by those whose works were saturated by intense color. Entry to the Louvre was free and he spent many hours studying its treasures. He eventually received a more formal artistic education, in a drawing studio and in a school of fine art.

Renoir came of age at a time when he felt the tension between the avant-garde and the establishment. Compared to his contemporaries who had private incomes, Renoir needed to earn a living, and often used unpaid models in the form of his friends and fellow artists. In 1874 he helped organize the inaugural Impressionist exhibition in the studio of the photographer Nadar, at 35 Boulevard des Capucines in Paris (then called The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Printmakers). This was a time of political, cultural, and technological flux in Europe: Renoir was conscripted for the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (but did not fight) and photography was gaining preeminence and competing directly with the Fine Arts. Renoir was a proponent of the hand-made over the machine, and lamented what he saw as the lost system of historical artistic patronage. Eventually, with the help of his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, and particularly recognition by the American audience who “didn’t mock us at all”, Renoir would become wealthy and famous.

As a person Renoir was extraordinarily social, craving the company of friends. He also desired to work alongside other artists, which some found intensely irritating, like Monet who preferred isolation. Renoir was also secretive, tended towards placatory behavior and would modulate his opinion to the circumstances. His biographer described him as “conflict-avoiding, double-talking … shrewd and even sneaky”. For much of his artistic career, he was not just seriously ill but also physically restricted. At the age of 47, in the late 1880s, he developed rheumatoid arthritis which progressively got worse. The effects of this inflammatory illness were debilitating, and his latter years were spent in a wheelchair where he painted despite his fingers unable to grip anything properly. His gnarled-up hands were bound with strips of cloth into which paintbrushes (and his ever-present cigarettes) were inserted by an assistant. Despite this, Renoir was extraordinarily prolific, described as a “body without a soul” if not working. He painted every day, producing well over 4600 paintings and other works of art over the course of his life.

Renoir’s painting style and especially the subject matter he focused on, changed significantly throughout his life, although certain themes and “types” preoccupied him: Genre paintings (everyday people in their everyday life), portraits, landscapes, and of course, and especially, his sensual nudes. In contrast to his failing body, Renoir’s art works rejected the obvious despair of his physical reality, and his paintings exuded a sense of joy and pleasure until the very end.