Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Biography and Legacy
French Draftsman and Painter
Biography of Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born into a working class family in Limoges, a city in the central west region of France. The area is historically significant as the center of French porcelain production, reaching that status during the 19th century. Fittingly, Renoir's first artistic job, during his teens, was as a painter in one of the town's porcelain factories. The son of a tailor and a seamstress, Renoir had a steady hand and a talent for decorative effect, which earned him praise from his employers and brought him to the attention of a growing customer base, including a number of wealthy patrons for whom he painted picture hangings and decorations for fans and other luxury objects. These early successes fed his desire to leave the factory and pursue fine arts painting.
To compensate for the limited training he was receiving in Limoges, in 1860 Renoir began making frequent trips to visit the Louvre in Paris to study the work of the French Rococo masters Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jean-Honore Fragonard, and François Boucher, and the Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix. Though Delacroix and the Rococo painters worked nearly a century apart, Renoir recognized similarities in their soft, loose handling of paint, which showed individual brushstrokes, and their embrace of color and movement rather than the Classical clarity of carefully composed form.
In 1862, Renoir began his formal training under Charles Gleyre, a Swiss-born academic painter who instructed a number of talented painters, among them Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille, three of Renoir's future Impressionist colleagues with whom he became close friends upon entering Gleyre's Paris studio.
During their training, Renoir and his new friends would venture into the scenic forest of Fontainebleau to engage in plein air painting. However, unlike Monet and Sisley, Renoir always maintained a penchant for the studio and for painting more traditional portraiture in the style of the 18th-century French masters he so admired. Fontainebleau became a favorite painting spot of Renoir's and one he visited frequently, thanks in part to his friend Jules Le Coeur, an admirer of his art who owned a house in Bourron-Marlotte, a commune on the forest's southern border. In 1865, Le Coeur introduced Renoir to the seventeen-year-old Lise Tréhot, who became Renoir's lover and favorite model for several years. Tréhot sat for dozens of portraits, including two in 1867: Diana the Huntress, which portrayed her as a Greek goddess a la a Rococo portrait, and Lise with a Parasol, which was received favorably at the French Salon of 1868. Well aware of the Salon's strict standards, Renoir executed these portraits in a conventional compositional style, combining smooth lines and meticulous coloration with a matter-of-fact naturalism reminiscent of the Realist painter Gustave Courbet, whom he admired.
During the summer of 1869, Renoir and Monet spent two months painting at La Grenouillère, a lakeside boating resort for the French middle class located just outside of Paris. Indeed, the case can be made that Renoir and Monet sowed the seeds of Impressionism at La Grenouillere. It was here that both men began to use broad brushstrokes to capture momentary scenes with a sketch-like looseness of feel, deftly capturing the water's natural movement and reflective effect on light.
Immediately following the brief but tumultuous Franco-Prussian War (in which Renoir fought) and the occupation of the French Commune in 1871, Renoir's early success began to take a turn for the worse. Rejections from the Salon far outnumbered acceptances, due in no small part to the "unfinished" quality his newer work assumed. His fortunes reached a point where Renoir was faced with the choice of either paying models or buying paint. While others of his colleagues like Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro had ceased to do so, Renoir continued submitting work to the Salon up until 1873, holding on to the belief that acceptance was a necessary yardstick for success. As Petra Chu notes in Nineteenth-Century European Art: "As late as 1881, the Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir wrote to his dealer [Paul] Durand-Ruel: 'In Paris, there are barely fifteen collectors capable of liking a painter without the backing of the Salon. And there are another eighty thousand who won't buy so much as a postcard unless the painter exhibits there.'" In addition, his friendship with the Le Coeur family soured in 1874, leaving Renoir without that source of patronage and the ability to stay in their home near Fontainebleau.
Following the 1873 Salon, in which the Impressionists' canvases were largely panned, Renoir and his cohorts began planning an independent exhibition of their works, free from the aesthetic constraints of the Salon and its jury system. The first Impressionist group show was held on April 15, 1874. While Renoir sold few works as a result of the show, it brought him to the attention of the collector Victor Chocquet, whose portrait he would paint and who would become something of a financial savior during this period.
By the time of the fourth Impressionist exhibition in 1878, Renoir quietly abstained. He had discovered financial independence thanks to regular portrait commissions (which in turn led to further success in the Salon) and had become disenchanted with the ideology of spontaneity that he felt had consumed the group. Shortly after disassociating himself from the very group of artists he helped found, Renoir traveled to Italy for the first time, a trip enabled by a financial deal he had struck with the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. During this sojourn, he came of the opinion that Impressionism lacked the structural underpinnings that had produced the great art of the Renaissance masters like Raphael. As he wrote to the dealer Ambroise Vollard later in his life, "by the early 1880s, he felt that he had 'reached the end of Impressionism, and could neither paint nor draw.'"
This pilgrimage, then, was a motivation for Renoir to move away from the loose, incidental quality of Impressionism toward more Classical ideas of draftsmanship, composition, and modeling. This shift had, to an extent, already begun: Renoir produced the iconic Luncheon of the Boating Party between 1880 and 1881, immediately before leaving France, and it shows an adjustment of his painterly techniques toward greater compositional unity. The focus of his mature work would no longer be exclusively on pioneering new modes of expressing the movement and color of light and nature. Rather, he looked to the coloration of the Rococo and late Renaissance periods, tendencies that were supported by further trips to Italy, Spain, and England.
Late Years and Death
As the turn of the century approached, now married and with three sons (the last born in 1901), Renoir continued to produce work at an impressive rate, despite his continually failing health. An injury to his right arm from a bicycle accident had left him with severe arthritis, and rheumatism plagued his left eye. By 1910, he was mostly relegated to a wheelchair and with bandages around his hands, making painting a great challenge. The family purchased a home in Cagnes-sur-Mer in the south of France, which gave Renoir periodic relief from his pains with its dry and mild climate.
In the previous decade, Renoir had befriended the art dealer Vollard, who became both an important patron and a trusted advisor to the artist when it came to choosing subject matter. In 1913, Vollard, well aware of Renoir's physical limitations, made the bold suggestion that he attempt sculpture, introducing him to the Catalan-born sculptor Richard Guino. Despite his physical ailments, Renoir was able to complete several successful sculptures during his collaboration with Guino, who largely worked with clay.
Influenced by his earlier trips to Spain to see the works of Francisco Goya, Renoir infused his late paintings with an increasingly monumental style. While his fellow Impressionists Claude Monet and Edgar Degas pursued the effects of light nearly to the brink of abstraction later in their careers, Renoir gained a solid, almost sculptural quality in the figures and landscapes he painted during the twilight of his career.
In the winter of 1919, Renoir suffered a heart attack at his home in Cagnes-sur-Mer. Shortly after, he passed away on December 3, 1919, with his sons by his side and several of his works hanging in the Louvre among the French masters he once went there to study.
The Legacy of Pierre-Auguste Renoir
It could be argued that Renoir and his colleague Monet are to Impressionism as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque are to Cubism: their experiments in painting together created an entirely modern visual idiom and marked off the artistic territory that the movement would grow to inhabit in the following decades.
He was also the first among his colleagues to recognize the cul-de-sac that Impressionism presented. Though Paul Cézanne is typically credited for the attempt "to make of Impressionism something solid and lasting like the art of the museums," this crisis in the movement was first met head-on by Renoir. His well-documented reintroduction of composition, outline, and modeling into his painting never completely erased the radical reassessment of color he helped theorize alongside Monet. Ultimately, his combination of modernity and tradition was highly influential on a next generation of artists including Pierre Bonnard, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Maurice Denis, all of whom collected his work.