The sheer delight of Renoir’s paintings has made him one of the most popular artists of all time. His luminous colours and lightness of touch inevitably link him with French Impressionism and the nineteenth century. Although he was certainly a leader of the Impressionist movement in the 1870s, to see him only in this context neglects the range and depth of his art. Renoir died in 1919 and in the last two decades of his life his work acquired a grandeur and a timeless classicism remote from the here and now of Impressionism. But for a long time the Renoir of the twentieth century has been misunderstood or dismissed. For many, it is difficult to reconcile the massive nudes of the late years with the Parisian charm of the Impressionist paintings. Moreover, there was no place for Renoir’s resplendent naturalism in early twentieth-century modernism. Next to Picasso’s or Braque’s daring fragmentation of form or Matisse’s brilliant colour inventions, Renoir’s adherence to tradition could seem irrelevant and out-of-date.
A re-assessment of late Renoir has been long overdue but is now being addressed. As the works presented in this exhibition, Renoir Revisited, so admirably demonstrate, Renoir in the last two decades of his life was an artist in full possession of his powers. We now understand that, far from being irrelevant, Renoir’s late painting was a model for the most progressive artists of the day. One of the most beautiful of Renoir’s late nudes was bought by Picasso and lies behind his own explorations of the theme in the 1920s. For Bonnard and Matisse, Renoir’s vision of a golden arcadia, undimmed, despite his waning strength and crippling arthritis, was a revitalising inspiration.
Throughout his career women were Renoir’s favourite subject. They provided him with his most continuous and potent source of inspiration and are at the center of the idyllic, harmonious worlds he created. Although in his female portraits Renoir often demonstrates a response to the looks and character of a particular sitter, in general he was interested in types rather than individuals. His women represent different ideas of femininity, which shifted over time.
Buste de femme (fig. 00), a study of an unknown model, encapsulates Renoir’s ideal female type – rounded, fair-haired and rosy-skinned. The warm palette of soft pinks and russet reds that enliven the gossamer fabric of her white blouse is achieved by the application of successive layers of thinned, translucent paint, a technique that owes much to Renoir’s admiration for Rubens.
A favourite theme during the 1870s, when he was a leader of the Impressionist group and living in Montmartre,
was la parisienne – the typical pretty, pert Parisian girl dressed in the latest fashion. Although in his later work Renoir left modern Paris far behind, attractive girls à la mode recur in his art. Fillette au chapeau fleuri (fig. 00) and especially the splendid Jeune femme au chapeau noir (fig. 00) demonstrate his delight in dressing his models in elaborate hats which, according to the artist Suzanne Valadon who modeled for him, he would have specially made or even concoct himself.
In addition to anonymous studio models, a number of identified women posed for Renoir. There were, of course, portrait commissions, but Renoir was always more relaxed depicting his family and friends. Christine Lerolle, who was the daughter of his close friend Henri Lerolle, a patron of the arts and wealthy collector, was the subject of several paintings and drawings. The charcoal study of Christine at the piano (fig. 00) can be linked to Renoir’s major commission from the French State in 1892 for which he chose the subject of two girls playing the piano, The Piano Lesson (Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Another delightfully intimate portrait of Christine in sanguine (red chalk) conveys the artist’s affection for his sitter (fig.00). Renoir’s liking for sanguine, a technique frequently employed by Watteau and Boucher, is an indication of his love of eighteenth-century French art.
Renoir’s favourite model in his later years was Gabrielle Renard, a distant cousin of his wife Aline, who joined the household in 1894, a month before the birth of the artist’s second son Jean (who would grow up to be a famous film director) and would stay with the family for the next fifteen years. With her voluptuous figure and glowing skin, she was an ideal model for Renoir and posed for him on numerous occasions, either alone, with his children, in fancy dress or nude. Gabrielle à l’écharpe noire is a sympathetic likeness of the sitter, one feels. In another portrait, Femme au fauteuil vert (Gabrielle) (fig.00), she is shown in profile dressed in red against a rich background of suffused reds and pinks, the curved form of the arm chair echoing the model’s sensuous grace. In Gabrielle au chapeau de paille (fig. 00), Gabrielle is presented less as an individual and more as a type – a country girl - in her straw hat seated in a timeless, wooded landscape.
Domestic life, especially women and children was a theme to which Renoir was particularly responsive. It is true that his attitude to women was generally conservative, that he had little time for professional women believing that a woman’s place was in the home, but contentment with his own home life and affection for his family produced some of his most tender works. He was captivated by children. As his son Jean Renoir later observed: ‘Renoir was always discovering and re-discovering the world at every instance of his existence, with every breath of fresh air he drew…it is because of this eager, child-like curiosity that Renoir was fond of children.’ The birth in August 1901 of Renoir’s third and last child Claude (‘Coco’) provided a new source of inspiration. In Coco à l’orange (fig. 00), the child’s flowing, long hair (not unusual for boys at the time) is echoed in the soft, rippling background in this engaging study of childlike innocence, while the close focus and luminous colour heighten the intimacy of Claude Renoir dessinant (fig. 00), a delightful image of a little boy totally absorbed in his drawing, a subject that looks back to Renoir’s eighteenth-century heroes, Greuze or Chardin.
Renoir’s love of the eighteenth-century is fundamental to an understanding of his art. ‘I am of the eighteenth century. I humbly consider not only that my art descends from Watteau, Fragonard, Hubert Robert, but I am one of them,’ he declared. At thirteen Renoir had been apprenticed to a painter of porcelain where he learned to decorate plates and vases with images of Marie-Antoinette and details of compositions by Boucher and Watteau, and this left him with a lasting fluency of technique and a taste for the Rococo. The art of the ancien régime was, in fact, highly popular in France at the end of the nineteenth century and promoted by such writers as the Goncourt Brothers. The impressive display of French Rococo art in the Louvre, which had been significantly enhanced by the La Caze bequest in 1869 had permitted a rediscovery of French eighteenth-century art and was a major source of inspiration to Renoir and a number of his artist colleagues, particularly Berthe Morisot.
Renoir’s love of the eighteenth century lies behind his modern fêtes-champêtres, those eloquent explorations of his vision of an earthly paradise in which human beings are in perfect harmony with a natural setting. Beaulieu, femmes et garçonnet (fig. 00) which depicts Renoir’s wife, his five-year-old son Pierre and another woman, is a radiant example of this particular genre that is so characteristic of Renoir’s late work. Here, the soft, melding brushwork and the brilliant palette, playing on the contrasts between warm and cool tones, enhance this vision of a modern-day Arcadia in which a scene from everyday life takes on the aura of a classical idyll.
No less harmonious is one of the masterpieces of Renoir’s late career, Les Laveuses (fig. 00), a scene of washerwomen in the southern countryside, for which Gabrielle was probably the model for both figures. The vigorous grace of the standing figure is counterbalanced by the downward thrust of the kneeling figure washing laundry on a stone, yet both are connected by their rhythmic curves that also harmonize them with the landscape setting.
These Arcadian scenes reverberate with echoes of the Mediterranean’s classical past, but they are also rooted in Renoir’s direct experience of the place. From the 1890s on, he would spend his winters in the south of France, partly because of his deteriorating health but also because, like many artists before and since, he craved brilliant light and spoke of cramming himself with sunshine. In 1906, Renoir bought ‘Les Collettes’, a large estate at Cagnes and thereafter made his life in the south. ‘In this remarkable countryside,’ he observed, ‘it seems as if misfortune cannot befall one; one is cosseted by the atmosphere.’
Although nature mattered to Renoir, there is no doubt that that the single most important factor in the development of his late work was his profound admiration for and sustained study of the art of the past. He grew up in Paris near the Louvre and from an early age was familiar with the masterpieces of that great museum. As early as 1880, he had begun to strain against the limits of Impressionism, a movement that had set out to deliberately reject the past, and which Renoir had come to see as too superficial in its subjects and too hasty in its execution. A visit to Italy in the autumn of 1881 produced a radical change in his art. In Rome he was particularly struck by the freshness of Raphael’s frescoes in the Villa Farnesina – the Triumph of Galatea, something of a discovery for him as by the late nineteenth century Raphael had been claimed by an increasingly moribund academic tradition. The other important revelation of the Italian trip was the mural paintings of Pompeii and Herculaneum that Renoir discovered in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. These Roman frescoes awakened his love of classicism while his admiration for Raphael’s firm contours and flawless surfaces opened up for Renoir new ways of thinking about and making his art. He set about learning to paint and draw afresh, seeking a way out of the impasse that Impressionism had become for him. The hard-edged, linear style that he at first adopted would yield a few years later to the fluent and supple handling of his late manner in which forms are created through rich colour and tone.
In his rejection of Impressionism, Renoir was by no means alone. A number of his fellow artists felt the need to locate themselves within a continuum of European painting, to ‘reinvent’ themselves as ‘old-masters’ for their own time. They felt that Impressionism lacked solid draftsmanship and deeper meanings and their search for solutions to this problem often led them to older art. ‘I wanted to make of Impressionism something solid and lasting like the art of the museums,’ Cézanne recalled. And Renoir told his dealer Ambroise Vollard that he had reached the end of Impressionism. Among other things, this change of attitude signalled a move away from contemporary subjects drawn from everyday life toward more timeless, universal, and classicizing themes such as the nude.
Although the eighteenth century was central to Renoir’s vision of the world, after the late1890s Titian and Rubens became his chief mentors. Renoir admired the exuberant splendour of their images as well as their dazzling technique: the shimmering surfaces of Titian’s late works and Rubens’s translucent paint and warm palette were vital to Renoir’s own late style. Their influence is felt most palpably in the long sequence of female nudes that dominate his late career. His female nudes, more than any other subject, demonstrate Renoir’s intense physical response to his subject. He once said: ‘I like a painting which makes me want to stroll in it, if it is a landscape, or to stroke a breast or back, if it is a figure. Renoir’s interest in the female nude was paralleled by both Degas and Cézanne, and all three artists looked to the example of the old masters, particularly Titian and Rubens, but also Veronese as they sought to locate themselves, as mature artists, in the great tradition of post-Renaissance painting. But whereas Cézanne’s powerful nudes assume an almost primitive force in his quest for an artistic Arcadia, and Degas, who despised Renoir for embellishing his models, investigates the unobserved awkwardness of women bathing, Renoir’s nude models passively and unambiguously invite the admiration of the spectator.
The intimate little painting Baigneuse en chemise au bord de la mer (fig. 00) was painted just at the moment when Renoir moved away from his hard-edged style and began to softly blend his colour, suffusing the whole composition with a gentle radiance. The later Femme nue aux coussins verts (fig. 00) is late Renoir at his most magnificent and shows him deliberately matching himself against Titian and Rubens, both in the monumentality of the figure and in the painting technique. The huge, opulent nude is modeled with great freedom yet extreme delicacy while vigorous multicoloured strokes animate the background. ‘One day, in the Louvre, I noticed that Rubens had achieved more sense of values with a simple scumble (frottis)than I had been able to with all my thick layers of paint,’ Renoir remembered. Here, in emulation of Rubens, he floated diluted washes of oil paint over a white ground, creating iridescent rainbows of colour that show the aged artist revelling, with astonishing assurance, in the sheer pleasure of paint. In such works, Renoir achieved that celebration of the beauties of the visual world that had always been his goal. They are a fitting final testament to a great artist’s career.