Posted February 3rd, 2008 by Jen in arts & crafts, features, history
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) exemplifies the Impressionism that emerged in France in the latter half of the 19th century. These artists were very concerned with every aspect of light and took to painting en plein air, outside the confines of their studios, in the midst of the ever-changing sunlight.
What many people don’t realized are the struggles of the Impressionist painters, who were critically mocked, shunned by their profession, and considered to be outrageous, lacking talent, and even anarchist, in their time.Success in the French art world was defined by acceptance at the Paris Salon, the greatest biannual art exhibition of its time. Art was expected to be refined, conservative, and in the Classical tradition of the Old Masters, drawing with clear, defined lines. The refreshing, lively approach of the Impressionist style should have flourished in the belle époque of France after the 1848 revolution, but the art establishment refused to make room.
Born in Limoges, France, to a working class family, Renoir worked as a boy in a porcelain factory and also painted hangings for overseas missionaries. In the early 1860s he began to study art under Charles Gleyre in Paris, where he met some artists who would be very influential in his Impressionist style: Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille.
These four men formed lasting friendships, and he painted with them in the Barbizon district, and met regularly with them and other painters of the Impressionist group at the Café Guerbois in the Batignolles region of Paris – animated discussions on art and literature could be heard there almost daily from around 1866-1870. Renoir’s relationship with Monet was particularly close during this time, and the two often painted together at La Grenouillère, a beautiful swimming spot along the Seine. As Renoir and Monet practiced painting light and water, they discovered that the color of shadows, rather than brown or black, was actually the reflected color of the surrounding objects.
During the 1860s, the Salon rejected so many submissions from Renoir and other Impressionist painters that an alternate exhibition was set up, the Salon des Refusés, where work refused by the Salon could be hung. The poverty of these painters was a shame, and at times during the 1860s, Renoir could not even afford paint. His work was considered crude and unfinished, and critics said he lacked the ability to draw. One particularly vicious critic had this to say about Renoir’s Nude in the Sunlight, painted in 1876:
Try to explain to M. Renoir that a woman’s torso is not a mass of flesh in the process of decomposition with green and violet spots which denote the state of complete putrefaction of a corpse!
The painting, in fact, was an elegant, sensual work which highlighted Renoir’s fascination with light and color.
Independent Impressionist exhibits were staged during the 1870s, and most were disastrous. Renoir, along with some other painters of the Impressionist group, became disheartened with the labels they were receiving, and by the early 1880s, the cohesiveness of the group dissolved, with many going their own ways. For Renoir, he focused on nudes and portraits, and felt that “he had gone to the end of Impressionism.”
By the late 1870s and 1880s, however, Renoir began to achieve some success. He painted from his garden at Montmartre, and then began to travel in the 1880s. He visited Algeria, Spain, and Italy. In 1883, at the island of Guernsey off the English Channel, he created 15 paintings in one month.
His later paintings were sometimes crisper, sometimes with duller coloring, but always timeless subjects, very accessible and appealing, and above all, with lovely women. “Why shouldn’t art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world.” And as a lover of the female form, he commented “I never think I have finished a nude until I think I could pinch it.”
In 1890, Renoir married Aline Victorine Charigot. The Renoirs had three sons. One son, Jean, became a filmmaker, another son, Pierre, became a stage and film actor. Many of his paintings after his marriage portray domestic scenes and family life.
Renoir began to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, and moved to the south of France around 1907, close to the warm air of the Mediterranean coast. Renoir continued painting during the last 20 years of his life, despite arthritis severely limiting his movement. He was wheelchair bound by 1912, but had a paintbrush strapped to his paralyzed fingers and kept at it.
Impressionism, like many ideas and many individuals not appreciated in their time, has now been judged by history as a tremendous, liberating movement. Renoir certainly did his part to influence both French painting and world art, and his influence in painting continues to this day in the use of loose brushwork, a feeling of movement and light, and the use of pure, bright colors.