On 25 February, City Connect celebrates the anniversary of the birth of French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir who was a leading painter in the development of the Impressionist style. As a celebrator of beauty, and especially feminine sensuality, Renoir has been described by art critic Herbert Read as “the final representative of a tradition which runs directly from Rubens to Watteau.” Read Renoir’s biography below to discover more about the life and work of this great artist.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born on 25 February 1841 in Limoges, France, the child of a working class family. As a boy, he worked in a porcelain factory where his drawing talents led to him being chosen to paint designs on fine china. He also painted hangings for overseas missionaries and decorations on fans before he enrolled in art school. During those early years, he often visited the Louvre to study the French master painters.
In 1862, he began studying art under Charles Gleyre in Paris. There he met Alfred Sisley, Frédéric Bazille, and Claude Monet. At times during the 1860s, he did not have enough money to buy paint. Although Renoir first started exhibiting paintings at the Paris Salon in 1864, recognition did not come for another ten years, due, in part, to the turmoil of the Franco-Prussian War.
Renoir experienced his initial acclaim when six of his paintings were hung in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. In the same year, two of his works were shown with Durand-Ruel in London. On 15 January 1882 Renoir met the composer Richard Wagner at his home in Palermo, Sicily. Renoir painted Wagner’s portrait in just thirty-five minutes.
Renoir’s paintings are notable for their vibrant light and saturated colour, most often focusing on people in intimate and candid compositions. The female nude was one of his primary subjects. In characteristic Impressionist style, Renoir suggested the details of a scene through freely brushed touches of color, so that his figures softly fuse with one another and their surroundings.
His initial paintings show the influence of the colorism of Eugène Delacroix and the luminosity of Camille Corot. He also admired the realism of Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet, and his early work resembles theirs in his use of black as a color. As well, Renoir admired Edgar Degas’ sense of movement. Another painter Renoir greatly admired was the 18th century master François Boucher.
A fine example of Renoir’s early work, and evidence of the influence of Courbet’s realism, is Diana, 1867. Ostensibly a mythological subject, the painting is a naturalistic studio work, the figure carefully observed, solidly modeled, and superimposed upon a contrived landscape. If the work is still a ‘student’ piece, already Renoir’s heightened personal response to female sensuality is present. The model was Lise Tréhot, then the artist’s mistress and inspiration for a number of paintings.
In the late 1860s, through the practice of painting light and water en plein air (in the open air), he and his friend Claude Monet discovered that the colour of shadows is not brown or black, but the reflected colour of the objects surrounding them, an effect today known as diffuse reflection. Several pairs of paintings exist in which Renoir and Monet, working side-by-side, depicted the same scenes (La Grenouillère, 1869).
One of the best known Impressionist works is Renoir’s 1876 Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (Bal du moulin de la Galette). The painting depicts an open-air scene, crowded with people, at a popular dance garden on the Butte Montmartre, close to where he lived.
The works of his early maturity were typically Impressionist snapshots of real life, full of sparkling colour and light. By the mid 1880s, however, he had broken with the movement to apply a more disciplined, formal technique to portraits and figure paintings, particularly of women, such as The Bathers, which was created during 1884–87. It was a trip to Italy in 1881, when he saw works by Raphael and other Renaissance masters, that convinced him that he was on the wrong path, and for the next several years he painted in a more severe style, in an attempt to return to classicism. This is sometimes called his “Ingres period”, as he concentrated on his drawing and emphasized the outlines of figures.
After 1890, however, he changed direction again, returning to thinly brushed colour to dissolve outlines as in his earlier work. From this period onward he concentrated especially on monumental nudes and domestic scenes, fine examples of which are Girls at the Piano, 1892, and Grandes Baigneuses, 1887. The latter painting is the most typical and successful of Renoir’s late, abundantly fleshed nudes.
A prolific artist, he made several thousand paintings. The warm sensuality of Renoir’s style made his paintings some of the most well-known and frequently-reproduced works in the history of art. The single largest collection of his works – 181 paintings in all – is at the Barnes Foundation, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Renoir’s work has been very popular with the American market, as is demonstrated by the large number of his paintings in American collections. In 1990, Bal au moulin de la Galette sold for $78.1 million.
Renoir died in the French village of Cagnes-sur-Mer on 3 December 1919.
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