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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The legacy of artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir is so enduring that it is hard to imagine this talented and successful painter living in obscurity. However, his background was indisputably working-class.

It is perhaps his relatively impoverished origins as the youngest of four siblings, living with his father Léonard, a tailor, and his mother Marguerite, that gave Auguste Renoir a remarkable drive to succeed. Even when crippled and scarcely mobile in old age, he continued to paint. More than that; he continued to create compelling works of art which continue to draw the eye today with their fascinating and unique skill in depicting light and shade. His early work such as "At the Inn of Mother Anthony" creates a warm circle of artistic comradeship. While he would later be famous for his authority with colour when working in oils, this work depicting his colleagues Claude Monet, Jules Le Cœur and Alfred Sisley is masterfully presented in shades of black, white and brown. The dog gives the image an almost photographic quality, as though the observer has just taken the image themselves.

Above all, Renoir had the outstanding ability to capture a single moment, or the quality of a single day. His work brings to life the world of the late nineteenth century in a way that allows the observer to participate in it. The long hot summer days, with the sun through the trees creating dapples of light that flicker over the faces of families and lovers dining, dancing and drinking together leave a lasting impression because of his ability to convey the intensity of the experience. Renoir was inspired by beauty. Beautiful women were the subject of many of his works, yet he also had the ability to capture beauty in in nature, in animals and in working class lives. His landscapes often have a timeless quality, evoking the freshness of viewing the scene as if for the first time through the eyes of a child. Even his paintings set in the lively atmospheres of boating parties, dances, and skaters in and around Paris have no sense of bustle about them. All is calm, even controlled, with little sense of tension.

It is a remarkable achievement, for Renoir was, for part of his life, one of the leading lights in an art movement that produced shock, and even disgust in some of the critics of the day. More than that, he eventually managed to work as a successful career artist while also experimenting with the novel ideas of the emerging school of Impressionist art. However languid, warm and sensuous Renoir’s works appear to be, they were born at a time of conflict between new and old art forms and styles. Renoir was an Impressionist artist at a time when the term impressionist was an insult. Impressionism gained its name from the reaction of critics to a painting by Monet exhibited in 1874. A leading art critic, Louis Leroy, howled in derision at the dream-like harbour painting known as ‘Impression: Sunrise’, promptly dubbing all painters of this style “impressionists”, rather than real artists. The small group of artists were subsequently called lunatics and Bedlamites, their work “a disaster”.

Impressionism tackled new subject matter in a new way and the critics were horrified. Capturing scenes in brushstrokes that were visible to the observer, and choosing new subjects for their paintings, the impressionists had moved far away from the picturesque and romantic that was considered to be "proper" art. It's possible that Renoir’s success in the new school was due to his background and need to earn a living. Having begun in commercial art, painting porcelain, he was then made redundant as machines were brought in to do the work. Certainly there is a driven quality to Renoir’s life, which affected many of his relationships and which may have led to his near obsession with producing works of art, putting career over all else including personal relationships. This is often the result of an impoverished start in life. His earliest work, prior to enrolling at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, was all commercial and included religious items for missionary workers and painted fans. It was only after his arrival at the Ecole that he began to see the possibilities in the radical new approach.

The Salon de Paris, founded in 1667 and the place where the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts held its exhibitions, was the place where all aspiring artists hoped to show their paintings. In 1868, now part of a group of artists that included Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and Frédéric Bazille, Renoir exhibited the painting of his model and lover Lise Tréhot. Previous paintings "Nymph and Faun" and "La Esméralda" had been submitted and rejected. Renoir destroyed them. Others were accepted but did not prove popular. His portrait "Lise with a Parasol" was the first to receive acclaim. It is an unusual study, in which the sunlit dress of Lise takes prominence over her shadowed face. Nonetheless it is an arresting image, with the elements that would come to be familiar in Renoir's work; a certain timeless quality, the sense of summer, a languorous and sensual quality to the model, even when discreetly covered in clothing.

These themes, of the sensuous woman clothed and unclothed, her body dappled in shade and sunshine, would recur throughout Renoir's life. It is extraordinary to think that his relationship with Lise was kept secret for so long. Despite interest in the portrait (although not all of it positive) it was not sold for several years. Eventually, in 1873, it was bought by Théodore Duret, a supporter of the impressionists and their work, for a substantial sum. The fear of poverty – again, not uncommon among those who have struggled in their early years – must have haunted the artist even as his career began to prosper. This is usually seen as the main reason for his not marrying Lise, even though she bore him two children. Renoir's need to be commercially successful led him to paint portraits for wealthy patrons, at which he was successful, though still not financially secure. By 1877, he was exhibiting some of the works that would bring him lasting fame, such as "Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette". His growing reputation was partly built on the portrait of the Mme Charpentier, the wife of his patron, with their children which was exhibited at the 1879 Salon.

Clearly with influential friends such as the Charpentiers, Renoir found no shortage of wealthy clients wishing him to paint their portraits. He had some 40 commissions for portraits from the family of French diplomat Paul Berard alone! As well as the portraits, Renoir painted landscapes and still life paintings for the Berards. It is a clue to just how committed Renoir was to his work. Some of his commissions from friends and colleagues of the family, such as a request depicting scenes from "Tannhauser", Wagner's famous opera, extended his capabilities into new areas. Berard purchased Renoir’s now famous painting "The Dancer", with its haunting ballerina dressed in ethereal blue tulle.

It was not Lise, but Aline Charigot, another model, who became the wife of Renoir, and her physical appearance represents Renoir's ideal of womanhood. Warm, earthy and sensuous, with red-blonde hair, Aline appears in many of Renoir’s paintings, notably as the voluptuous subject of his painting "The Blonde Bather". While other women would become his artistic muses, Aline brings to this portrait a freshness and richness of colour that is reminiscent of Botticelli's "Venus". The same quality can be seen in "The Large Bathers". Again, there is a purity of line and colour in this image of bathing women that is almost pre-Raphaelite in style, with a hint of humour in the strange poses they adopt.

It is perhaps not surprising, since Renoir was consciously inspired in this work, which took several years to complete, by the styles of both Ingres and Raphael. The title also reminds the observer of Rubens and Titian, again consciously on Renoir's part. He had visited Italy and absorbed some of the influences of the masters of the two previous centuries. "The Large Bathers" attempts to harmonise the old and the new with elements of impressionism as well as masterly painting. It succeeds admirably and this approach has sometimes been called Classical Impressionism. However, the critics did not think so and Renoir was disenchanted by the response. Italy was not the only source of inspiration for Renoir. He also visited Algeria and there is a strong sub-theme of Orientalism in his work. This can be seen best in his "Odalisque", an early work rich in detail which was modelled by Lise Tréhot and inspired by the Orientalist paintings of Eugene Delacroix. Lise lies back with her eyes half-closed seductively, drawing the observer towards her.

Like many Orientalist painters, Renoir's own attitude to "the Orient" was ambivalent. With regard to the women of Algeria, he commented that there were "some pretty ones but they do not want to pose". He used various French models in the paintings. His trip to Algeria was partly to explore and be inspired by the country, its people and the landscape, but it was equally of benefit to his well-being, as Renoir suffered from various health problems throughout his life. Eventually arthritis would almost immobilise him but he still painted from a wheelchair, assisted first by Aline's cousin Gabrielle Renard, who was also helping to care for the children of Aline and Auguste.

Through Aline and their children, Auguste Renoir found another inspiration for his work – family life. Renoir's paintings of children, often pictured with their mothers and absorbed in some task, are some of the most delightful of his works. Gabrielle, who also appears in some of Renoir's portraits of nudes, appears as an integral part of family life. With Pierre-Auguste's rheumatoid arthritis increasingly incapacitating him, the household moved to Cagnes-sur-Mer where he could gain some of the benefits of the warmth of the Mediterranean. Gabrielle helped him to handle the paintbrush, just as she had helped his children as they were learning.

Renoir painted on, remaining creative and driven until the end. Turning late to sculpture, he drew on the assistance of younger men to mould the clay according to his instructions. By this point his paintings were already phenomenally successful and would go on after his death to continue to demand some of the highest prices in the art world. That was not his motivation, however. Renoir's most important emotional relationship was with his creativity. His secretive relationships with women and comradeship with colleagues could never compete with art, his greatest love.