Magazine article Contemporary Review

Renoirs from Massachusetts

Magazine article Contemporary Review

Renoirs from Massachusetts

Article excerpt

PIERRE-AUGUSTE Renoir (1841-1919) painted about six thousand pictures during his long and industrious life: roughly a hundred for each year of his activity. One of the pleasures of this summer has been the chance to see a concentration of twenty of his less known works at the Royal Academy exhibition, A Taste for Impressionism, of paintings from the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Renoir, the son of a jobbing tailor in Limoges, was the only successful French working-class painter of his generation. From the age of thirteen he was employed to paint floral decorations on porcelain at Levy's Parisian china-factory, not far from the Louvre. On one of his lunch-hour strolls he noticed, and was captivated by, the shallow reliefs on the Louvre by the exquisite sixteenth-century sculptor, Jean Goujon, especially the panels of nymphs bathing in a fountain (now kept inside the museum to prevent erosion). Later his recollections of the brilliant clarity of colour translucent on porcelain, and of the chiselled voluptuousness of Goujon's lines, would help to shape his technique.

A third but smaller component was added (particularly in 1885--1905, the period of many of Renoir's pictures of women bathing and other nudes) by the easy-going supervision of the Neo-Classicist Charles Gleyre, a dextrous craftsman to whose studio Renoir flitted in 1861, when he had saved up enough money to live on. His Lehrjahr with Gleyre did not cost him much, since that generous master charged his students, whom it seems he took for only a year or so each, no more than a contribution towards the rent of the atelier and the fees of the models. Renoir's fellow students included Monet and Sisley, who became his life-long friends, and Bazille, a promising artist who was mortally wounded in the Franco-Prussian War: 'Whom the gods love die young, since the gods hate anti-climax.' The earlier owners of the atelier (Jacques Louis David and Baron Antoine Jean Gros) would not have been pleased that their rooms now sheltered three of the painters soon to be grouped under the title of Impressionists'. Gleyre himself, a tolerant classicist like Gustave Moreau, is best remembered as the painter of Illusions Perdttes (Louvre), a pictorial lament for Homeric times.

With Gleyre's cordial support Renoir was admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in April 1863 (although grudgingly) and remained on its books until the time of the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1873. His attendance was erratic because of his wanderings in the Forest of Fontainebleau (where he worked with his venerated Corot and others associated with the Barbizon School of landscape painters), two periods of military service, many changes of address in Paris, a boating trip down the Seine from Paris to Le Havre, extended stays with richer friends en route, a long affair with his model Lise Trehot and his mobilisation in a cavalry regiment, in which, his record stated, he 'conducted himself well for the duration' of the Franco-Prussian War. From his demobilisation in 1871 he became so elusive (as he shuttle-cocked from the rue Dragon to Louveciennes, from the rue Notre Dame des Champs in Montparnasse to his garden-house in the rue Cortot in Montmartre, from Argenteuil to Chaton) that his earlier tracks are obliterated by his later tracks. In spite of that, he was constantly at work on his pictures.

Five were accepted by the annual Salons before 1870 (one of these, Hugo's Esmeralda dancing with a Goat, later destroyed by Renoir himself) and three were rejected. Two were sold to the dealer Durand-Ruel in 1872. His carer was forwarded, not by institutions, but by private patrons. He made an over-modest start in 1874 by selling one of his most sumptuous paintings, La Loge (now in the Courtauld Gallery) for 425 francs: an extraordinary bargain for the purchaser, a minor dealer called Pere Martin. We may be sure that he was rewarded more lavishly, both in money and fame, for the portrait of herself and two of her children, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, commissioned by the networker Mme Charpentier in 1878. …

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