Pierre-Auguste Renoir

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 and made their name alongside Renoir, 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.

Biography

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 here. 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 indirect competition with fine artists. 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 scenes of idyll until the very end...

People Seated under a Tree in the Jardin du Midi
Portrait of Berthe Poret
Portrait of Adrienne
Portrait of Renoir’s Nephew, Edmond Renoir Jr.
Study of a Nude Figure and a Woman Wearing a Hat
Statue of a Faience Figurine
Female Nude
Bust of a Woman

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
French, 1841-1919

People Seated under a Tree in the Jardin du Midi

This idyllic landscape was painted c.1919, towards the end of Renoir’s life, when he was living at Les Collettes in Cagnes-sur-Merin 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 paintbrush, not with the tips of his fingers as one would expect, but almost rigid in his right fist. Pieces of torn up cloth are 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.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
French, 1841-1919

Portrait of Berthe Poret

oil on canvas
18 x 15 in. (46 x 38 cm.)

The family of Berthe Poret hosted Renoir in the 1860s and this portrait of her remained in their possession for many years after it was painted. Renoir could not afford to pay models this early in his career, and so it was expected that his subjects would be his close acquaintances (he still needed to buy canvas, stretchers, and paints). This portrait of Berthe is clearly idealized and evocative of a different era, either because Renoir was still under the influence of the crisp, academic style of his fine art school or because he was purposefully trying to imitate the Old Masters like Raphael and Ingres. Later in his life when he recalled his earlier career, Renoir described how his sister recommended he turn to portraiture for a reliable income. For the next twenty years following his painting of Berthe, portraits would dominate his output, far exceeding his nudes and scenes of daily life. His friend and fellow Impressionist, Camille Pissarro, called him the “portraitiste eminent”.

This painting is recorded in Guy-Patrice and Michel Dauberville, Renoir: Catalogue Raisonne des Tableaux, Pastels, Dessins et Aquarelles I (2007), no. 440

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
French, 1841-1919

Portrait of Adrienne

oil on canvas
19 x 14½ in. (48.3 x 38.6 cm.)

This painting is referred to as a portrait of Adrienne, although it is unclear exactly who the female sitter was meant to be. Portrait painting was an important part of Renoir’s output at this time, and he was extraordinarily skilled at capturing the distinctive characteristics of his well-to-do clients in a gestural and easy manner. In this instance, given Renoir’s interest in capturing everyday people in everyday scenes, is it possible that the sitter was intended to represent a specific type of Parisian lady, and not be a portrait on an individual person. Renoir was able to find the joy and charm in his depictions of everyday people as he was not interested in investigating their inner lives. He focused instead on the fashionable and attractive women, across class lines, who he observed in the streets, gardens and cafes in Paris. Renoir was known to have a particular interest in millinery, and Adrienne sits here, in a fitted dress, with a feather-plumed hat. It is unclear why he was so fascinated with millinery, if it represented something aspirational, or if he just appreciated the compositional challenge including them introduced to this work. The palette he uses in this painting is noticeable for its heightened color and especially the preponderance of blue, a characteristic of many paintings from this period. This was picked up by one art critic who ridiculed his palette after seeing his work in the second Impressionist exhibition of 1876: try to explain to M Renoir that a woman’s torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh with green and purple spots that indicate the state of total putrefaction of a corpse”. 

This painting is recorded in Guy-Patrice and Michel Dauberville, Renoir: Catalogue Raisonne des Tableaux, Pastels, Dessins et Aquarelles I (2007), no. 320

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
French, 1841-1919

Portrait of Renoir’s Nephew, Edmond Renoir Jr.

oil on canvas
16  x  12½  in. (41 x 32 cm.)

By the mid-1880s painting portraits was no longer Renoir’s primary focus - nor his main source of income - and he began mainly using his family as subjects. 1888 was a pivotal year for Renoir: his financial prospects were beginning to improve. Simultaneously he began experiencing a chronic health crisis that would continue to deteriorate through the course of his life when he suffered from a facial paralysis diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis. This portrait was painted at this pivotal time and depicts Renoir’s nephew, Edmond Renoir Jr., the only son of his brother, Victor Edmond Sr., a journalist, and Mélanie Porteret. Edmond Jr. may also have been his uncle’s occasional studio assistant. The portrait looks more like a sketch in oils than a finished work of art. This way of working was typical of his style during the late 1880s when he focused more on drawing than producing a “completed” painting. There are also stylistic references to artists of the Renaissance in having Edmond pose in profile. It was not unusual to find boys during this period with the longer hair seen on Edmond and it was said that Renoir was particularly keen on capturing this moment before young boys cut their hair. There are at least six other versions of portraits of Edmond Jr. dated to within a few years of each other, including one in the Denver Art Museum. As an adult, Edmond Jr. would marry Hélène, the daughter of Renoir’s good friend George Rivière.

This painting is recorded in Guy-Patrice and Michel Dauberville, Renoir: Catalogue Raisonne des Tableaux, Pastels, Dessins et Aquarelles II (2009), no. 1271

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
French, 1841-1919

Study of a Nude Figure and a Woman Wearing a Hat

oil on canvas
16 x 12½ in. (41 × 32 cm.)

This study in oil contains at least two of Renoir’s most favored subjects: the nude figure, usually a bather which he “loved to paint the most”, and a painting of everyday people in everyday life, in this instance a young woman, wearing a fabulous hat, seated in a park or café in Paris. Studies like this were not uncommon although they were also not intended to be viewed as a completed work of art, even though by 1900 there was already a strong market for Renoir’s nudes. For the contemporary viewer, these studies have a beautiful immediacy and vitality, and offer an insight into the working process of a painter who worked obsessively and daily. By 1900 Renoir’s paintings were accepted by the establishment and he was made a Chevalier of the Legion’Honneur, something that he knew would infuriate his wider artistic circle: “I never thought of myself being a revolutionary painter; I just wanted to continue in the tradition of the Louvre”. Renoir’s stylistic references to the great Old Masters is evident in all his paintings. 

This painting is recorded in Guy-Patrice and Michel Dauberville, Renoir: Catalogue Raisonne des Tableaux, Pastels, Dessins et Aquarelles III (2010), no. 2122

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
French, 1841-1919

Statue of a Faience Figurine

oil on canvas
8 x 6 ½  in. (20.5 × 16.5 cm.)

The subject of this painting refers both to Renoir’s past, as a child apprentice in a Paris porcelain factory and his future, when in 1917, towards the end of his life, he started a ceramics studio and business with his son Jean, at his home Les Collettes in Cagnes-sur-Mer. It is difficult to determine the exact origin of this figurine because of how gesturally Renoir painted the details. It may be an example of the blue and white porcelain, that was driving people wild in 1860s France when the Japonisme craze was at its height. Renoir was introduced to Chinese and Japanese art by his brother around this time. The Impressionists had discovered the arts of Japan and China, and Renoir was said to particularly like the Ming dynasty blue and white porcelain. The ceramic figure in this painting, must have held some special meaning for Renoir as he included it in at least five other works that are dated between 1888 and 1910. This specific painting was owned by the famous dealer Ambroise Vollard to who Renoir said: “for me, painting decorations has always been an unalloyed pleasure, starting with those cafés that I did during my youth, when I worked directly on the walls.”

This painting is recorded in Guy-Patrice and Michel Dauberville, Renoir: Catalogue Raisonne des Tableaux, Pastels, Dessins et Aquarelles III (2010), no. 1760

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
French, 1841-1919

Female Nude

oil on canvas
15¾  x 11½  in. (40 x 30 cm.)

Renoir was obsessed with painting nudes, often in indistinguishable landscapes, absent of any obvious meaning or context. He considered female nudes an “indispensable form”. He aimed to “make the flesh on my canvas live and quiver. I love greasy oil pigments… that is why I love working in oils”. This specific nude is a study for the series of bathers with blonde hair that Renoir painted between 1902 and 1905, one of which is in the Detroit Institute of Art and one in the Belvedere Museum, Vienna. His connection to the Venetian Old Masters, especially Titian, is evident in the composition. The famed artist Mary Cassatt would later describe his nudes and bathers as “enormously fat red women with very small heads”. Renoir was in the most precarious state of health during this period. He could barely walk; he had no teeth; he could not eat solid foods; he weighed just 97 pounds. And yet his paintings of voluptuous, idealized nudes radiated sensuality and joy, a far cry from his own corporeal reality.

This painting is recorded in Guy-Patrice and Michel Dauberville, Renoir: Catalogue Raisonne des Tableaux, Pastels, Dessins et Aquarelles III (2010), no. 2472

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
French, 1841-1919

Bust of a Woman

oil on canvas
9 ½  x 8 in. (25 × 21 cm.)

A few years prior to painting this portrait, Renoir visited Munich, where he became overwhelmed by the extraordinary collection in the Pinakothek showcasing the work of the great Flemish master, Peter Paul Rubens. Renoir already knew of Rubens’s masterworks 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, later mother of Louis XIII, that lined the walls of the Louvre’s Grande Galerie. Rubens was known for his distinctive color palette and dynamic manner of painting. Renoir was also fascinated with the art of the 19th century Romantic artist, Eugene Delacroix. Elements of both these artists’ styles have been captured by Renoir in painting this nude woman. Renoir would spend his life searching for “the secrets of the [old] masters”, through looking and copying, even though he was widely considered by his peers and the public to be a modern Great Master himself. 

This painting is recorded in Guy-Patrice and Michel Dauberville, Renoir: Catalogue Raisonne des Tableaux, Pastels, Dessins et Aquarelles V (2014), no. 4212