The biography of Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 - 1919)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born on 25 February 1841 in Limoges. He was the sixth child of Léonard Renoir (1799-1874) and Marguerite Merlet (1807-1896). In 1844 Renoir and his family moved to Paris where Léonard Renoir earned his living as a tailor.

In 1854 Renoir left school and begin his apprenticeship as a porcelain painter at the firm of Lévy freres. His precocious talent for painting would assure his career as a porcelain painter but the firm went bankrupt in 1858. After that Renoir dabbled in a number of different jobs but it seems that he may have decided to become a full-time painter around this date.

On January 24, 1860 Renoir was granted permission to copy in the Louvre, a practice that he maintained for the next four years. At this time Renoir had a taste for eighteenth-century masters, including Fragonard, Lancret, Watteau and above all Boucher. Boucher's Bath of Diana was the first painting that he adored and he continued to love it all his life.

By the following year, 1861, Renoir had begun attending the studio of Marc-Gabriel-Charles Gleyer, a Swiss teacher who offered practical instruction to a number of artists. At the same time Renoir enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and he was there from 1 April 1862 until a couple of years later. In 1863 Renoir may have submitted a work to the official Salon (an annual exhibition of paintings chosen by the jury) but if he did it seems that the jury refused it.

At the Salon the following year Renoir had his first success - the painting entitled Esmeralda Dancing with her Goat around a Fire Illuminating the Entire Crowd of Vagabonds, which he destroyed after the exhibition.

At the Gleyre’s studio Renoir worked with other young artists with whom he had become friendly and these were the future Impressionist painters Claude Monet (1840-1924), Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) and Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870).

Other artists whom he met around this time were Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). By 1863 the nucleus of the future Impressionist group was formed.

Typical Renoir’s work from this period include The Inn of Mère Anthony which although pointed in the forest at Fontainebleau is a genre scene painted indoors, and Jules Le Coeur Walking His Dogs in the Forest of Fontaineble, a work which was clearly painted in the studio, perhaps based on sketches done in the open.

Jules le Coeur (1832-82) owned a house in Marlotte at which Renoir was frequently a guest at this time. At the end of 1865 Le Coeur introduced him to the seventeen-year-old Lise Tréhot who became his lover and model until her marriage in 1872. She posed for a number of works and modelled for the paintings Renoir submitted to the Salon, such as Diana, Lise with a Parasol, Summer, Bather with Griffon and Woman of Algiers.

Because those works were destined for the Salon they tended to be rather conventional in their composition and very smoothly executed but at the same time Renoir was painting much more informal works in which the traditional distinction between sketch and finished painting was gradually being eroded.

In 1869 Renoir and Monet worked together and produced what are usually regarded as the first landscape paintings in which the impressionist style of painting is properly evident. Working at La Grenouillere on the Seine near Bougival, Monet and Renoir executed a number of works and seven are known today.

The Renoirs works at La Grenouillere are painted on fairly small canvases and their lack of finish betrays a rapid execution typical of works done out of doors, capturing the essentials before the light changes dramatically. Compared with another early landscape painting, one of the most dramatic changes in the works done at La Grenouillere was in the artists’ use of colour. Both Renoir and Monet have increased the general brightness of the work by the use of colour complementary, particularly the juxtaposition of red and green in the boats. One of the principal tenets of the impressionist method, that the local colours of objects are affected by their neighbours, is observed here. The composition is a very conscious construction, held together by the lines of the horizon and the jetty.

The following year Renoir had two figure paintings accepted at the Salon – Bather with Griffon and Woman of Algiers, for both of which Lise had posed. Certain conventions in the depictions of North African themes had been established by Eugène Delacroix (1789-1863) among others, after French colonization in the 1830s and these would have helped to lend to the works appear and accessibility. The availability and sensuality of Algerian woman was seen as indisputable.

On 19 July 1870 France declared war on Prussia and the following mount Renoir was mobilized. Whether because of family commitments or out of an unwillingness to support Napoleon III’s political regime, most of his artist friends avoided being drafted.

In London Monet met a Parisian picture dealer, Paul Durant-Ruel, whom he introduced to Renoir in summer of 1872. That year Durant-Ruel bought a flower still life and the Pont des Arts from Renoir. Shorty thereafter, Renoir moved into a studio at 74 rue Saint-Georges where he painted some of his most memorable scenes of Parisian life and which was to be the centre of his life for the next decade. Renoir was decided not to submit to the official Salon the following year but to stage an independent exhibition with his friends.

In the summer of 1873, Renoir went to stay with Monet nine kilometres north-west of Paris on the Seine. Renoir and Monet continued the practice established at Gleyre’s studio and painted together in the open air. Once again their close artistic collaboration was to prove fruitful, and each produced a number of works in which their practice is similar. In Claude Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil Renoir demonstrates how far these private works have departed from the more ponderous style he adopted for Salon paintings such as Riding in the Bois de Boulogne. The following summer Monet, Manet and Renoir all worked together; this work is a testament to the impressionist credo.

After the failure of the 1873 Salon, Gleyre’s former students and artists like Pissarro and Cézanne began seriously to consider holding an exhibition of their work which would be free of the constraints of the Salon system. The financial independence which the purchases had offered the group meant that it was only Renoir who had continued to send to the Salon in 1872 and 1873. His continued allegiance to the Salon demonstrates that he considered it much more that simply a means of generation sales but as an important testing for his pictures.

By the end of 1873 Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Cézanne, Sisley, Berthe Morisot (1841-95), Degas (1834-1917) and other artists some of whom had already had a measure of success at the Salon, had registered themselves as a joint stock company. Manet did not join them, preferring to pursue his career at the Salon where he was beginning to have some success. Renoir exhibited seven works, including Dancer, La Loge and the Parisienne.

The exhibition opened on 15 April 1874 at a prestigious venue at 35 boulevard des Capucines, one of the great boulevards. The main aim at the exhibition was the freedom to exhibit work without the constraints of a jury system and any practical decisions which had to be made in the hanging of the works were taken democratically. The works were hung alphabetically; generally works were hung on one level, rather than according to the more hierarchical system adopted at the Salon.

Although some of over fifty articles or notices in the press about the exhibition were critical, most found something worthwhile to say, if not about works themselves, then about the artists challenge to the stranglehold of official art exhibitions. A number of writers used the word ‘impressionist’ in their articles to designate the group.

The exhibition was judged to be a success in terms of visitors but was a financial failure and Renoir was put in charge of the liquidation committee. They had no choice but to dissolve the company.

Because of the need to clear their debts and in order to gain some publicity Morisot, Monet, Renoir, and Sisley decided to hold a public auction of their work in the Hôtel Drouout, the Parisian auction house on 23 and 24 March 1875. Renoir sold 20 paintings for a total of 2251 francs, some of them for as little as 50 francs, less than their reserve price. Shortly after the auction he received a commission from Victor Chocquet. Chocquet was one of the most important early collectors of works by Impressionist painters, particularly Cézanne, Monet and Renoir. His first commission was a portrait of his wife Caroline. That some year Renoir was commissioned by the industrialist Jean Dollfuss to copy Delacroix’s Jewish Wedding in the Louvre for 500 francs.

In April 1876 the second Impressionist exhibition was held. Renoir exhibited 19 works, six of which were loaned by Chocquet and two by Dollfuss. Manet was listed as the owner of Frédéric Bazille, Painter Killed at Beaune-la-Rolande.

This summer Renoir began work on a major painting, sketching at the Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre and in the garden of a new studio he had rented at the top of the hill near the picturesque windmills. A that time Montmartre with its market gardens still retained some of the charm of its original village atmosphere, although the areas around were increasingly industrialized. It seems that from the outset, Renoir regarded this work as a major artistic statement, akin to a Salon painting in conception if not in finish. He tackled it with the same degree of single mindedness, working it up from rough sketch through a much larger oil sketch to the finished picture.

The Moulin de la Galette took its name from one of the old windmills which contributed to the rather rustic atmosphere which still prevailed at Montmartre at this time. Every Sunday afternoon young people from the north of Paris contributed in the dance-hall and in the courtyard behind it in fine weather.

In 1877 the group realized the third independent exhibition and published their own journal. L’impressionniste was never properly a manifesto, and did not survive beyond the four issues produced for the exhibition, but it demonstrates the artist’s commitment to exerting as much control as possible over the promotion and reception of their works. Renoir contributed to L’impressionniste with two letters. However, most of the journal was written and edited by Reviere. Much at that we now know about Renoir’s work on the Moulin de la Galette derives from the account left by the civil servant and writer Georges Reviere, who knew him well at this time.

In 1878 Renoir was accepted the Salon, the first time for eight years, with Le Café, a genre painting of a fashionable young woman enjoying a cup of coffee. He showed four works et the Salon in 1879, including the large society portrait of Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children. The portrait was hung in a prominent place at the Salon, mainly because of the intervention and influence of Mr. Charpentier, and was critically well-received due to writing of Pissarro who related that Renoir had a ‘great success at the Salon’, and Zola.

Marguerite Charpentier was the wife of the publisher Georges Charpentier and hostess of one of the most fashionable salon in Paris, at which Renoir was a regular guest. At the beginning of the Third Republic the most fashionable salon in Paris attracted a number of writers including Zola, Floeebert, Maupassant, Turgenev, the artist Manet, and the politician Léon Gambetta. In April 1879 Georges Charpentier founded the weekly journal La Vie Moderne, devoted to art, literature, and society gossip and for which Renoir provided a number of illustrations.

The end of Impressionism?

In January 1881 Durand-Ruel had begun purchasing far greater numbers of Renoir’s paintings than previously and that year he spends 16,000 francs on them. This offered Renoir an unprecedented degree of financial security and he did not have a family to support which left him free to spend the money on foreign travel. The first two trips abroad Renoir made were to Italy and North Africa, destinations common for nineteenth-century artists. For least part of that time, he was travelling with Aline Carigot. He had met Aline at the end of 1879 or the beginning of 1880. She had recently arrived in Paris, where she logged with her mother, from the village of Essoyes in Champagne. It is not clear when she and Renoir become lovers, but the first painting for which she modelled was the ambitious Luncheon of the Boating Party painted 1880-1. Renoir did not marry Aline until 1890 when their eldest son was five years old, ten years after their first meeting.

If the trip to Algeria was in a sense a confirmation of his earlier work, then the Italian journey was to be influential for Renoir’s art through the remainder of the 1880s, the most experimental and troublesome decade of his career. Much of the work produced in the 1880s is groping and experimental in nature.

The important reason for the change in Renoir’s art at that time was the impact of the masters of the Renaissance whom he student in Italy. Renoir later said that he had reached the end of impressionism. One of the main objectives of the impressionist style, an accurate analysis of the effects of light and color reflexions on objects in the open air, was riddled with paradoxes as Renoir and several observant critics had already recognized. In translating the blue of the river in The Skiff into paint, Renoir has built a picture with claims to objectivity, on his most personal, least communicable sensations of colours and tones. In The Skiff, a superb example of the impressionist idiom taken to its logical conclusion, Renoir’s observations are turned into a painting in which the forms of the object represented seem set to disintegrate.

In a painting such as Umbrellas Renoir’s change in practice is evident. The painting was begun around 1881 before the trip to Italy and the right-hand side of the canvas betrays a fluffy handling which is characteristic of his work at this time, and much closer to The Skiff for example. The work was finished some four years later and the much tighter, structured, and linear approach differentiates the left-hand side of the painting. The new 'dry' style reached its climax in The Children’s Afternoon at Wargemont and particularly the Bathers. The Bathers marked Renoir’s return to the more traditional subject-mother of official Salon art, and after the mid-eighties the nude was to be of primary concern. The links with academic art, much as Cabanel’s Birth of Venus, were clear, but Renoir was attempting in technique and subject to lend his art a classical and universalized flavour.

On his return to France from Italy at the beginning of 1882, Renoir met Cézanne. Renoir had know him for twenty years, and he had been one of the original exhibitors at the first Impressionist show, but Cézanne had been working for some time in isolation in the south of France, at his home in Aix-en-Provence and Renoir start to work with him. For several years he had been seeking to structure his composition in a more systematic and controlled fashion, and his method was evident in work like the Château de Medan. In his work, the picture surface is lightly structured by a system of diagonal parallel catching. This has the effect of merging near and planes which would normally be differentiated by the use of aerial perspective and the suggestion of the momentary, fleeting aspects of nature have been replaced by something more timeless, permanent and organized.

In the light of changes in his artistic process Renoir opted for the Salon as the natural venue for his paintings, rather than the independent exhibition. In 1882, when Durand-Ruel was desperate to present a seemingly united band of Impressionists at exhibition in what has to be the seventh group show, Renoir was still in the south with Cézanne. Renoir made it clear that the mistrusted the combination of Pissarro and Gauguin and that to be associated with Gauguin at an exhibition would cause his canvases to fall by 50% in value. Renoir’s rupture with the group and with the style was complete – he did not exhibit at the eighth and final show in 1886.

Linked to Renoir’s desire for a ‘pure’ art was the notion of a mythical past in which people lived in a ‘natural’ state, based on the model of a pre-industrial era and in which individuality was highly valued. For Renoir this involved an artisanal approach to art, and he found its archetype in the art of pre-revolutionary eighteenth-century France. Throughout his career, from his copying in the Louvre as a student, right until the end of his life, Renoir continued to praise the masters of the Rococo.

The Societe des Irrégularistes

Renoir wrote to Durand-Reul in May 1884 announcing that he was planning to go to Paris to hold a meeting of a new society which he was attempting to inaugurate. His guiding principle for the new society was that of irregularity – and he explains that nature has a horror of regularity. Natural objects are infinitely varied in their formulation, according to Renoir, the eyes in even the most beautiful face are not identical, nor are the leaves on a tree. When we examine the greatest works of art, whether paintings, sculpture or architecture, it becomes evident that their creators have sought to imitate nature in that respect and adhered to the fundamental law of irregularity.

Renoir recommends certain steps to be taken, one of which would be the foundation of a so-called Société des Irrégularistes which would host exhibitions and whose members would adhere to the principle of irregularity. In his notes, Renoir recommended that art should be a harmony of complementing contrast and diversity.

This notion of irregularity was clearly one of the guiding principles behind works much as the Bathers which combine impressionist elements – the landscape and the two women in the background, with a much more linear, tightly composed foreground. The vision of society that Renoir describes in his paintings by the 1880s is a pre-industrial one which is rigidly hierarchical. The universalized society he depicted in his painting was in fact the blueprinted for society as it ought to be ordered, in which harmony was achieved precisely because people were individual, dissimilar, and recognized their position within a rigid hierarchy. One of the effects of Renoir’s reassessment of his work and ideology at this time was that women, particularly nude women, began to adopt a more prominent position in his art, but within narrowly defined roles.

Renoir’s dislike of the ‘progress’ of the modern industrial world and its basis in scientific knowledge was a notion that was gaining currency at this time – in literature Zola, the philosopher and writer Hippolyte Taine, for example. Renoir is less concerned with discovering the universal principles which are manifest in all material reality; instead his ideals are more individual and linked a recommended vision of ordering the world. The importance of individuality artistic freedom and traditional, craft based technique were issues that concerned him until the end of his life.

In 1883, the year before drawing up his plans for the Société des Irrégularistes, Renoir made his last submission to the Salon. After this time, his work was displayed at a number of dealer’s shows and at occasional independent exhibitions. The sense of isolation that Renoir experienced in the 1880s and 1890s was social and cultural, but it was also to an extent political. In the 1990s the affair in which a Jewish officer in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly accused of diverging secrets to the Germans, polarized the French nation. This further alienated Renoir from more liberal, Republican friends such as Monet, Zola and Pissarro.

Around this time Renoir’s domestic situation changed. His first son, Pierre, was born on 21 March 1885, and although the family still lived in Paris, they started visiting Aline Charigot’s native village of Essoyes in southern Champagne that year and they become regular visitors. Their marriage did not take place until 14 April 1890 and Renoir has kept his liaison secret for so long. On 15 September 1894 their second son, Jean, was born and Gabrielle Renard, a distant cousin from Essoyes, had joined the household to help with the children. She subsequently becomes one of Renoir’s favourite models. The Renoir’s youngest son Claude, known as Coco, was born on 4 August 1901, by which time his mother was over 40 and his father was 60.

The Late Work

About 1884 Renoir left his studio on the rue Saint-Georges and his work revolved around wife and their children. As his domestic life became more settled, and his finances more secure, his pleasant bourgeois existence was reflected in his art. In middle age, Renoir became more bourgeois and works such as the great triptych of Dance pictures, and is celebrations of the valuable middle-class commodity of leisure Renoir’s last submission on the Salon, in 1890, was a double portrait of the daughters of Catulle Mendes at the piano, and his first bought by the French State, the Young girls at the Piano, both deal with the theme of leisure. In these works the models move at ease in claustrophobic setting with all the trappings of middle-class urban life. The large group portrait of The Artist’s Family is an informal study in the garden of the Château des Brouillards in Montmartre, in which they lived from the fall of 1890. However, it is pervaded with the atmosphere of a group photograph in which each figure has been assigned a place and there is a sense of slight unease suggested by their costumes. Madame Renoir, a vast matriarchal figure, presides over the group, resplendent in a magnificent bonnet. Her eldest son, eleven-year-old Pierre, hangs on her arm, dressed in a fashionable sailor’s suit. In the foreground, Gabrielle Renard, without a hat and wearing an apron, is very much in the role of family servant, attending to the toddler Jean in a long gown and with a sumptuous bonnet like his mother’s. The third child is the daughter of the writer Paul Alexis. The trees in the background have all the veracity of the photographers’ backcloth. The work appears to affirm the Renoir’s arrival into bourgeois.

On the beginning of 1894 died Gustave Caillebotte, a naval architect by profession who painted in his spare time and had built up an impressive collection of their works which on his death was bequeathed to the French State. He had named Renoir as one of its executors and Renoir required a great deal of tenacity in order to see his friend’s wishes upheld. The bequest comprised 67 pictures – including both drawings and paintings: eight works by Renoir (including The Swing and Dance at the Moulin de la Galette), five by Cézanne, four by Manet, seven by Degas, eighteen by Pissarro, nine Sisley’s and sixteen Monet’s.

During the 1890s Renoir began a series of foreign travels, often to see the great museums of the world. In 1892 he vent to Madrid and admired the work of Velázqueze in the Prado. Laiter he visited Dresden, England and Netherlands where he saw a large Rembrandt exhibition in Amsterdam. In France he continued to live in Paris, but the family bought a house in Essoyes in 1895.

Renoir’s maturity was marred by ill health. A fall from his bicycle in the summer of 1897 left him with a broken right arm, which exacerbated his arthritis that from 1902 began seriously to affect him and restrict his painting activities. Rheumatism caused him great pain and he had problems with a partial atrophy of the nerve in his left eye. By 1910 he was continued to a wheelchair and his grossly deformed hands had to be bound with bandages to retrieve the chafing from attempting to hold a paintbrush.

A partial relief from the pain could be derived from living in a mild, dry climate and may have helped Renoir to decide to buy a property in Cagnes in the south of France. During 1907-8 he had a house and studio built on the site of an olive grove at Les Collettes and the family moved there in the fall of 1908. According to Jean, the family enjoyed every material comfort on offer at the beginning of the twentieth century: electricity, central treating, a telephone and Renoir had a motor car. After this date, he typically spent winters in Cagnes, and the summers in Essoyes with trips to Paris, to heap in touch with old friends, exhibitions and the museums.

On 3 August 1914 Germany declared war on France and Renoir’s two elder sons were wounded in action in October. The following year, Jean was badly wounded and hospitalized in Eastern France. His mother went to visit him but she died on her return to Nice on 27 June 1915.

Renoir had met the picture dealer Ambroise Vollard in 1894 or 5. He start to be one of the most important people in Renoir’s life, buying pictures, hosting exhibitions and influencing the artist’s choice of subject-matter and medium. He also wrote one of the most widely read monographs and controlled a large cache of Renoir’s work after his death, ensuring his posthumous reputation.

In the summer of 1913 Vollard suggested that Renoir attempt sculpture. We will mention Venus Victorious by Renoir and Richard Guino. The final version of the Venus Victorious is six feet in the eight, slightly over life-size, but with a far greater sense of monumentality. The statue depicts the goddess Venus holding the golden apple which she is awarded by Paris, a favourite mythological theme that preoccupied Renoir towards the end of his life.

Renoir’s subject-matter in his later work was concerned with depicting woman, and his late work features members of his household entourage; his children and Gabrielle Renard. Renoir’s biographers all testify to his working best when surrounded by women, to whom he could listen as they sang at their work. It seems that his painting and his desire for the company of women were symptomatic of a more general attitude towards them. Women, and to a lesser extent children, might serve as muses. His mistrust of educated women is well-known. Renoir’s ‘otherness’ is suggested by his being ‘close to nature and yet unacquainted with the veneer of civilization’. For Renoir’s publisher, the writer Gustave Geffroy, in common with so many others who have written about his paintings, it took Renoir’s ability with a paintbrush to ‘civilize’ these women and turn them into Art. Geffroy, and Renoir, imagined that culture in its widest sense, was a strictly made preserve. Any appeal to the ‘natural’ qualities of femininity was, in effect, an argument for the preservation of the status quo.

Renoir died on 3 December 1919 in Cagnes, aged 78. His sickness was not the immediate cause at his death. He had a heart attack. Jean and Claude were with him when he died. His estate, valued at five million francs, was bequeathed to his three sons.