A member of the Impressionist group, of which he is one of the most illustrious representatives, Auguste Renoir is today one of the most sought-after signatures.
His genius is simultaneously expressed in portraits, landscapes, marines, still life and genre scenes.
Nevertheless, he showed his preference for portraits and female nudes, probably finding a sensuality echoing the colourful palette there. Influenced by the Italian frescoes of the Renaissance and then by Fragonard, Courbet or Ingres, a friend and admirer of Monet, Auguste Renoir evolved into a style where he used curves and volumes as much as colour.
“I think I’m starting to understand something”
A prolific painter, whose career spans 60 years, Renoir painted nearly six thousand paintings. An abundance that does not affect the value of his work, on the contrary, since he continues to be one of the most sought after French painters.
Born in Limoges, sixth of a family of seven children, his father was a tailor; his mother a seamstress and the family lived very modestly.
The family moved to Paris in the hope of improving their situation and Pierre-Auguste went to school before becoming an apprentice in the Lévy Frères & Co. porcelain workshop.
Successfully completed the entrance exam to the School of Fine Arts and became friends with Monet, Bazille, Sisley and painted together outdoors in the Fontainebleau forest.
Successfully exhibited his first work “The Esmeralda” which did not stop him from later destroying it. Ingres, Courbet and Delacroix influenced him.
Zola wrote a very glowing review of “Lise with the umbrella” where he painted the model and his mistress Lise Tréhot (with whom he had two children). The rest of the press was very critical.
Painted “The dance at the Galette mill” (immediately bought by Caillebotte), he was in the midst of the Impressionist period, fragmenting his touch, seeking to render the effects of light as much as possible.
Renoir doubted himself as despite some recognition, he still couldn’t sell his paintings and he decided to no longer exhibit with his Impressionist friends and return to the official Salon – the only way possible for success. Thanks to his portrait “Madame Charpentier and her children”, he received more orders and earned money. He searched for the effects of lines and underlined contours. His new model, Aline Charigot who can be seen in ‘Lunch of the rowers’ became his wife (he married her in 1890 and had three children, Peter, John, and Claude, who all had careers in cinema).
Travelled a lot to Algeria and Italy where he questioned the purpose of Impressionism before breaking with this movement. He felt that he had arrived at the end of the experience; he wanted to go to a more timeless art. Renoir concluded that the Impressionist painters focused attention on the temporary effects of light only to reproduce them, neglecting the density of things. Looking at the works of Raphael and the frescoes of Pompeii, Renoir realized that colour is not king – it is only a means. It is used to make the shape, expressed by the relationships of tones without useless subtleties, that by means of the model say exactly what they have to say. This was a great lesson that Renoir applied during the next thirty years. When he returned he spent three weeks in Marseille, where he paid a visit to Cézanne and confided in him.
He entered into his so-called Ingresque or Aigre period and presented “Grandes Baigneuses” (large bathers). Precise contours, rigour of shapes, colder colours. His dealer Paul Durand-Ruel asked him to abandon this development that his friends disapproved of. The birth of Pierre (the future movie actor) led him to devote himself to paintings of maternity.
Travelled to Spain and also spent some time in Brittany where he met Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin.
Vollard met Renoir, but also the birth of his third son, Jean (the film director of “The rule of the game”) made him return to maternity paintings. His children’s nanny, Gabrielle Renard, became one of his regular models. An accidental fall near Essoyes, his wife’s hometown and where he lived, would be the cause of the deterioration of his health, particularly due to a fracture of his right arm, which then caused disfiguring rheumatism.
Settled in Cagnes-sur-Mer where the climate was supposed to be beneficial to him. He bought the Collettes domain to save a threatened olive grove. This was to be his last home where he spent his old age, surrounded by the affection of his people while painting despite his disability. He painted mainly portraits, female nudes and still lifes. His paintings were full of shimmering colours. Renoir was now an artist at the height of his glory, full of honours, exhibited across Europe and the United States. This did not change his way of life and painting in this quiet and rustic environment.
He then discovered sculpture, even though he suffered from rheumatism and made the acquaintance of Maillol, whom he was introduced to by the Catalan sculptor Richard Guino, with whom he worked until 1918.
His wife died and his sons, Pierre and Jean – active on the war front – were both seriously injured.
He painted until his last breath and is reported to have said to his nurse who treated him while handing her his brushes “I think I’m starting to understand something”. He died in Cagnes on 3 December, as a result of a pulmonary congestion. He was buried in Essoyes in the Aube region.