A leading figure amongst the impressionists, Renoir's self-motivation and natural fascination with beauty moved him from tailor's son to one of the most famous artists of the early twentieth century.
Renoir's start in life was humble. He was born in Limoges, France in 1841. His mother was a seamstress and his father Leonard was a struggling tailor who moved his family to Paris in 1844 in search of better work prospects.
The family settled here, living in central Paris close by to the Louvre. The young Renoir showed a natural ability at drawing, but was more noticeably talented at music.
Initially this was encouraged and he was taught by Charles Gounoud but the family fell upon hard times and at age 13 Renoir was forced to leave school and apprentice to a porcelain factory instead.
Whilst this closed one door, it opened another and proved the first steps on Renoir's journey as an artist. His work at the porcelain factory taught him to copy designs upon the porcelain being produced there. He had a talent for the work but was bored by the subject matter. As a result he began to take refuge in the Louvre.
His talent was noted by his employer, who told his family. It was at this point that he began to take lessons in art, preparing him for entry for Ecole des Beaux Artes. The factory closed in 1858 forcing him to find other means for supporting his studies. As a result he took on work decorating fans and hangings for overseas missionaries.
Renoir Learning His Trade
In 1862 Renoir began studying under Charles Gleyre and at Gleyre's studio he met and became friends with Frédéric Bazille, Claude Monet and Alfred Sisely. During their training the four enjoyed painting in the open air in the forest of Fontainebleau. This went on to become a favourite place of Renoir's to paint and one which he was able to visit frequently until 1874 thanks to his friend Jules La Coeur.
Jules La Coeur and his family were strong supporters of Renoir. He introduced Renoir to Lise Tréhot who went on to become both his model and lover, appearing in paintings such as 'Lise and a Parasol'. Jules and his family owned a property in Foutainebleau which Renoir was able to stay at up until the relationship between the two soured.
As well as exploring outdoor painting Renoir maintained an interest in work within the studio. However his means were limited and at times he had to choose between paying for studio models and buying paint.
Renoir was conscripted to the French army in 1870 as part of the Franco-Prussian war effort. He did not last long in the cavalry, quickly succumbing to dysentery. As a result he never saw any action; sadly though Bazille was killed in action in November.
The return to Paris was not peaceful. Following the collapse of Napoleon III's war efforts and the subsequent fall of the Second Empire, Paris was under the government of the Communards in 1871, although this did not last long.
Renoir and the Paris Salon in the 1870s
Renoir continued to work and also continued to submit work for inclusion at the Salon. He believed strongly that acceptance at the Salon would improve his chances of commercial success because the public trusted and were directed by the choices of the Salon. However his rejections significantly outnumbered the acceptances.
In truth this was because his style did not fit the mores of the day. The style of his work had changed and was now considered to have an 'unfinished' quality. Renoir continued submitting work to the Salon up until 1873, at which the Impressionist works on show were panned by critics.
After this it was decided that the group would put on their own show and as a result Renoir, Monet, Pisarro, Cezanne, Sisley and Degas amongst others joined forces to produce the first Paris show in 1874 of what became known as the Impressionists. This show too garnered criticism and the works on show were described as 'impressions' rather than finished works - hence the name of the new artistic style.
Whilst not a critical success, the show did bring Renoir new supporters and patrons whom helped propel his career forwards. He came to the notice of Georges and Marguérite Charpentier who introduced him to a different circle of people including the writers Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola. From amongst this group he began to get more commissions and his painting 'Madame Chapentier and her Children' appeared in the 1878 salon. The painting was well received and brought Renoir much critical acclaim.
A Grand Tour
At around this time Renoir began to see himself parting ways with the Impressionists and the ideology of spontaneity that gripped it. The growing financial independence that his success allowed along with a deal that Renoir struck with the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel allowed him to make a trip to Italy.
His studies of Raphael and other Renaissance masters there helped to solidify his thoughts on his art processes and how he wanted to push his work forwards. He felt that his work lacked structure and wanted to move away from the loose, spontaneous work he had been producing.
As a result his work after his return from Italy more clearly defined the changing style that had been seen in works such 'Luncheon of the Boating Party.' He moved away from expressive depictions of light and nature towards a palette from the Rococo and late Renaissance periods.
Renoir continued to travel, visiting Spain, England and returning to Italy again to further explore his studies. They confirmed to him the changes he was seeking to make. He painted whilst abroad, including a portrait of the composer Richard Wagner.
His continuing success and change in finances meant that Renoir was able marry his long-term girlfriend Aline Charigot in 1890. By this point the couple already had a son (Pierre born in 1885). They went on to have two more sons: Jean (1894) and Claude (1901). He painted many family scenes depicting his sons and wife along with other members of the household including Gabrielle Renard, his wife's cousin and the nanny to his sons.
Around 1894 Renoir began to develop the rheumatoid arthritis that plagued him throughout his later years. Yet this did not slow him down and he continued to paint prolifically. By the time of his death he had produced several thousand paintings- an amazing achievement by any standards.
Later Years and Death
By 1907 the arthritis had deformed his hands, leaving them permanently curled. By 1910 he was mostly wheelchair bound and had his hands bandaged. The family had moved to Cagnes-Sur-Mer where the milder more temperate climate brought Renoir some respite.
It goes without saying that these limitations made painting increasingly difficult for him. However it is a mark of his personality that he continued to create art right up until his death.
In 1913, and at the suggestion of the art dealer Vollard, Renoir took up sculpture, working with the sculptor Richard Guino and other assistants to produce works based around his paintings. He also continued to paint; he was severely limited by the rheumatism but was able to work with the help of Gabrielle Renard.
Renoir achieved ultimate fame as an artist during his lifetime- in 1919 his work was bought and hung in the Louvre. It was full circle, from the porcelain painting apprentice taking refuge in and inspiration from the Louvre to the renowned and accomplished artist being an inspiration to others.
Renoir died later that year at Cagny-Sur Mer following a heart attack. He was surrounded by his sons, and was buried next to his wife Aline at her hometown of Essoyes, France.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.