Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born in Limoges in southwest France to a family of artists, and demonstrated his hereditary gift at an early age. At the age of four, his family moved to Paris, and at 13 he began work as an apprentice in a porcelain factory, decorating plates with flowers.
In 1862, Renoir enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts, taking evening classes in drawing and anatomy. Meanwhile, he also joined the studio of fashionable painter Charles Gleyre. While studying there, he met Monet, Bazille and Sisley, who together found the Neoclassical method Gleyre taught to be restrictive. Responding to these traditions, through Bazille, the four met Cézanne and Pissarro and became the pioneers of the Impressionist movement. Instead of painting indoors — as was the convention of the time — they brought their easels out into the wild, in what would later be named ‘en plein air’
Was Renoir an Impressionist?
Although often simply classified as an Impressionist, Renoir spent most of his life exploring multiple ways of working, many of which were concerned with academic and classical painting. He also concentrated on figure painting, often disregarding Impressionist ideals to do so. While keen to modernise the art of painting, he was more open to embracing tradition than the other Impressionist artists, while being more aware of the potential limitations of the movement.
Despite this, Renoir’s participation in the evolution of Impressionism and its astounding success is undeniable. For several years, his close association with Monet established the characteristics of the movement, and the long-term relationship with the principal art dealer behind the popularity of the Impressionists, Paul Durand-Ruel, accentuated his status as one of the most popular artists of the group.
Renoir’s break with Impressionism
Significantly, Renoir did not exhibit any work with the Impressionists beyond 1877 after experiencing doubts about the spontaneity and impermanence of the Impressionist aesthetic. This refusal to be defined purely by Impressionist thinking and techniques demonstrated Renoir’s reputation of constant exploration of art that had preceded him.
Around the 1880s, Renoir began travelling a lot, visiting Italy, Holland, Spain, England, Germany and North Africa. He used his 1881-2 tour of Italy, across Venice and Rome to the Bay of Naples, to continue his self-education. At this time, he was influenced by Raphael, Velázquez, and Rubens, looking back to the old masters for their prowess in linear and classical style. On his return, his figures became more sculptural and crisply drawn, which in turn led to a concentration on the colouristic tradition of Rubens and Titian, as can be seen in his Les Grandes Baigneuses (1884-1887). These techniques were a newfound strength for Renoir, as he was able to explore new avenues that were not open to those unwilling to break free from the constraints of pure Impressionism.
How did Renoir die?
It is fair to say that Renoir was not a healthy man for a good portion of his life. The painter suffered from a long-term, debilitating chronic illness — rheumatoid arthritis. It is believed that he first developed the condition at around the age of 50. At 60, he was using a walking stick, and two years later, his hands were visibly deformed, the extensor tendons ruptured, and his shoulders and elbows had endured ankylosis and destruction.
As the disease progressed, he faced more pain, eventually having to use a wheelchair. In 1919, he passed away from pneumonia. His constant pain makes his paintings all the more impressive, as the feelings they evoke are positive and cheerful in the face of his suffering. This is most likely due to his sincere love for art. Even on the day of his death, he was still painting.
What are some of Renoir’s famous paintings?
Despite his dire financial troubles in his early years and infirmity later on, Renoir’s paintings were optimistic and lively, focusing on pleasurable occasions and pleasant emotions. Treating his art in an almost hedonistic way, he clearly relished painting and his style reflected this.
His en plein air technique allowed him to capture incredible moments of French social life, as portrayed in his Bal du moulin de la Galette (1876) which is available to view at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Other examples are Le Déjeuner des canotiers (1881) and La danse à Bougival (1883).
Using the notoriously small, colourful strokes of the Impressionist brush, he managed to portray ordinary life vibrantly and emotionally, playing with the way natural light hit the scene. Like many of his fellow Impressionists, he also focused on landscape — famously painting Femme avec parasol dans un jardin (1875) and La Yole (1879), for example. However, Renoir had a particular affinity for portraits, allowing him to become more commercially successful than his peers. Notable portraits he painted include Portrait of Irène Cahen d’Anvers (1880) and La Loge (1874).
Willow Gallery offers a selection of original Renoir paintings for sale for anyone interested in investing in his outstanding work.