Biography of Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born in 1842 in Limoges, southern France.
Unlike Manet and Degas, who came from wealthy families, Renoir was the son of a tailor and a seamstress and was set to work at a porcelain factory at the age of 13.
His natural talent for painting was soon obvious: he could paint beautiful motifs far faster than anyone else. Renoir enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and had a triumphant decade of producing the most exquisite impressionist works between 1874 and 1883. Those works can be summarised in one word: 'joy'.
Renoir himself said that
"a picture has to be pleasant, delightful and pretty -- yes, pretty. There are enough unpleasant things in the world without us producing more."
Amongst Renoir's most famous masterpieces are Luncheon at the Boating Lake, La Grenouillere (The Frogpond), La Loge (The Theatre Box) and Ball at the Moulin de la Galette (the second most expensive impressionist painting ever sold).
Renoir then had his Dry Period, between 1883 and 1887, during which his style changed to become rather more conventional. Renoir became convinced that impressionism was a passing phase and painted cooler and more precise works which emphasised structure.
Renoir produced some important works (especially of nude women) during his old age, bravely battling debilitating arthritis. But his heyday was the decade starting with the first impressionist exhibition of 1874.
Renoir died in 1919, at the age of 78, and is buried in Essoyes.
1. Renoir's early years
Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born on 25 February 1841 in Limoges, the sixth of seven children.
His father, Leonard, was a tailor; his mother a seamstress. One of Renoir’s earliest memories was watching his father sitting cross-legged on the floor surrounded by cloth, scissors, patterns and velvet pincushions. He also regularly drew on the floor with his father’s chalk.
Paris and porcelain
Renoir and his family moved to Paris when Renoir was three, his father seeking to enhance his prospects. After seven years in a catholic primary school, aged just 13, Renoir became an apprentice porcelain painter.
Renoir’s work involved painting flowers, pastoral scenes and even the portrait of Marie Antoinette onto cups, vases and plates. He excelled and developed a love of the bright luminous painting for which he was to become famous.
Renoir obviously had a prodigious natural talent, and was able to paint far quicker than his fellow artisans (who named him Monsieur Rubens). This meant that he earned good money, for he was paid by the piece, and he was able to help his parents buy a little cottage in Louveciennes.
Renoir took evening classes in painting and often spent his lunch hour sketching at the Louvre. But this happy life was halted by the industrial revolution: a machine was invented to print pictures onto china and he and his colleagues were made redundant. He therefore turned to painting fans and banners.
Renoir studies art
By the age of 21, Renoir has saved enough to further his further studies.
He enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (though this was short-loved as he didn’t enjoy its rigid syllabus) and took evening courses at Gleyre’s studio. It was here that he met Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and Frederic Bazille.
Not that Renoir always got on with Gleyre. On one occasion, Gleyre said to Renoir “Young man, you are very skilful, but it looks like you only paint for your own enjoyment”, to which Renoir replied
“well yes, if I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t be doing it”.
Unlike many of the other impressionists, Renoir was easy-going and tolerant. He was not trying to be disrespectful. He just had a passion for painting.
2. The early impressionist years
The early years of Renoir's career were difficult: he had to scrimp and save; he had mixed fortunes at the Salon; and he was distracted by three stints in the army.
Living with the other impressionists
To economise, Renoir shared lodgings with Monet in the early 1860s and subsisted on a diet of beans and lentils (a sack of beans lasted for a month, when they changed to lentils, and so on). Monet occasionally managed to get them an invitation to dinner, where they made sure to gorge themselves.
Renoir was still able to make some money by decorating porcelain and painting portraits of tradesmen.
Renoir and Monet just about made ends meet, though Monet never paid his tailor. When the poor man complained, Monet threatened to take his custom elsewhere. As Renoir remarked, Monet was a “born lord”.
Renoir moved into Sisley’s studio in 1865 and went sailing with him down the Seine. He moved in with Bazille the next year when Sisley got married.
The Cafe Guerbois and Fontainebleau
In 1863, Manet shocked the conservative art world with his painting Dejuner Sur l'Herbe (Lunch on the Grass).
Thereafter, Manet became the inspiration for the artists looking to move away from classical art. They start to meet at the Cafe Guerbois, together with writers sympathetic to their ideas, to discuss art, politics and their lives.
Over the years a group coalesced. Its artist members included Manet, Renoir, Monet, Degas, Pissarro, Cezanne, Sisley and Bazille. Another prominent member of the group was writer, and close childhood friend of Cezanne, Emile Zola.
In the spring of 1863, Monet organised a trip to Fontainebleau to paint the landscape. The 62,000-acre Fontainebleau forest, about 30 miles from Paris, is full of pretty crags and had become a popular destination for those day-tripping from the capital. Though Renoir was predominantly a portraitist, he went along anyway.
It was here that Renoir met the Barbizon school painter Narcisse Diaz. The two struck up a friendship, perhaps grounded in the fact that they had both painted porcelain. Diaz encouraged Renoir to lighten his palette and provided him with free paintings materials.
Renoir was accepted by the Salon of the Academy des Beaux Arts on his first try in 1864. This was important: the Salon was the premier exhibition of the time and the place at which aspiring artists could show their work to the buying public and art critics.
Renoir's painting was the intriguingly named Esmeralda Dancing with a Goat. But Renoir destroyed the painting after it was exhibited, because it had been ignored by reviewers.
The latter part of the decade was a mixed time for Renoir's Salon submissions: he was rejected in 1866 and again in 1867 (even though his painting, Diana, made a number of concessions to please the traditionalists); but the 1868 jury accepted his full-length portrait of his muse and model Lise Trehot, which attracted positive reviews for its bold brushwork.
One of Renoir's major works from this period is The Frogpond, or Le Grenouille, painted in 1869. At the time, 'frog' was slang for young woman.
The Frogpond was a popular spot on the Seine frequented by Parisian day trippers. Renoir and Monet painted side-by-side and, no doubt influenced by each other, produced very similar canvasses.
Military service and the Franco-Prussian War
Renoir’s plans were disrupted in 1862 and again in 1864 when he underwent two stints of military service. Taking up four months in all, Renoir lacked the means to buy his way out of military service by paying for a substitute.
In 1870, Emperor Napoleon III contrived to declare war on the Prussians following a series of political miscalculations. The war and the ensuing Siege of Paris, which took place over the winter of 1870/1, involved a number of the impressionists in different ways.
Renoir was conscripted into the army, assigned to a cavalry unit in southern France (even though he knew nothing about horses), saw no fighting and caught dysentery. In some ways he was lucky: Bazille was killed in a battle; and Manet joined the army and defended Paris during the 131-day siege.
Others were less patriotic: Cezanne hid out in Provence; and Monet moved to London with his new wife and young child.
Monet's time in London was important for the impressionist movement: it was here that he met Paul Durand-Ruel, the gallery owner who became the impressionists' most important supporter.
3. Renoir comes of age: 1873-1882
Renoir came of age in the decade following the Prussian war.
He sold works to collectors and painted some of his most enduring works, including La Loge (the Theatre Box), Ball at the Moulin de la Galette and Luncheon at the Boating Lake.
Durand-Ruel and Salon rejections
Renoir returned to Paris in June 1871, along with the rest of the impressionists.
Perhaps the only positive to come out of the Prussian War was the friendship Monet formed with Paul Durand-Ruel whilst in London.
Durand-Ruel was an art dealer with galleries in London and Paris. And, as soon as Monet introduced Renoir to him, Durand-Ruel purchased two of Renoir's works: a still life of flowers and a painting of a Parisian bridge, for a total of 600 francs.
The next years were full of ups and downs. Durand-Ruel continued to purchase paintings, and Renoir was able to attract other collectors (including Henri Rouart and Theodore Duret); but he was rejected by the Salon in 1872 and 1873; and Lise Trehot, his girlfriend of seven years, dumped him and married an architect.
The end of 1873 brought a new low. An industrial crisis placed Durand-Ruel in severe financial difficulties and he suspended payments to the impressionists.
1874: the first impressionist exhibition
The economic outlook spurred the impressionists into action. They founded the Societe Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs et Greveurs and put on their own exhibition on the Boulevard des Capucines.
Renoir was centrally involved: he decided how the paintings should be hung, with his brother Edmond in charge of the exhibition catalogue.
Monet submitted a number of paintings to the first impressionist exhibition. But the titles he gave them were uninspired. So Renoir's brother decided to call one of them Impression: Sunrise. This is the origin of the term 'impressionism', first used as an insult by hostile reviewers and later adopted by the group.
Renoir displayed six oil works and one pastel. The reviews were overwhelmingly negative, with The Dancer singled out for particular abuse. Leroy said that the dancer's legs were:
"as cottony as the gauze of her skirts".But he didn't understand: Renoir and his friends were not trying to produce a photographic effect; they were trying to reproduce the impression that a scene left on them.
Another of Renoir's submissions to the first exhibition was La Loge (or The Theatre Box). This work is now rightly regarded as one of the gems of the impressionist period. It features Renoir's brother Edmond and a model, Nini Lopez, known as "fishface". Nini, the main subject of the painting, is scanning the audience but is also aware that she is being watched.
1876: the second impressionist exhibition
Renoir took part in the second impressionist exhibition, held two years after the first, exhibiting 15 paintings. They included 12 portraits. Renoir was not the main target of vicious attacks by critics, though Albert Wolff took aim at his painting Study: Torso, Effects of Sunlight.
One of Caillebotte's eight paintings, The Floor Strippers, stole the show. But, overall, the exhibition was not a success. Albert Wolff's acidic review observed that:
"Rue Le Peletier [where the exhibition was held] is unlucky. After the fire at the Opera, here is a new disaster befalling the district. ..."
1877: the third impressionist exhibition
The third impressionist exhibition followed the next year. Renoir contributed 21 paintings, about 10% of the total number shown. They included one of his most important works, Ball at the Moulin de la Galette.
This painting of a Parisian windmill converted into a bar and dancehall is about pure joy: young people dressed in the latest fashions are flirting, dancing and generally having fun.
Ball at the Moulin de la Galette is the second most expensive impressionist work ever sold, fetching $78 million when auctioned in 1990 (giving it an adjusted price of $187.8 million).
But the critics could not resist laying into Renoir. Wolff was again the chief culprit, remarking of one of Renoir's paintings:
"So many studies done at the morgue to reach such a result"
1878-9: Salon success
By early 1878, Renoir had had enough of the hostile reviews. Unlike Manet and Cezanne, he was not independently wealthy and so had to earn a living.
Renoir did have a work accepted at the Salon that year, The Cup of Chocolate, but it failed to attract any real attention. The next year, he opted out of the fourth impressionist exhibition and had another work accepted by the Salon.
This time he made much more of a mark. His painting, Madame Charpentier and her Children was of a wealthy socialite and her family. The success had much to do with the social standing of Madame Charpentier and the fact that Renoir downplayed his impressionist style.
A one-man show followed in July 1879. But normal service was resumed in 1880: though Renoir's paintings were again accepted by the Salon, they did not receive much attention.
At least Renoir's improved status as a well-known portraitist ensured a regular supply of lucrative commissions.
1880-1: Lunch at the Boating Lake
Last but not least comes Lunch at the Boating Lake, perhaps Renoir's most famous work.
Renoir and his girlfriend and later wife Aline courted at the Hotel Fournaise. Renoir chose an outdoor terrace to paint this picture of people having fun on a Sunday afternoon. The models for the picture include impressionist painters Mary Cassatt and Gustave Cailbotte.
Lunch at the Boating Lake is one of our 10 best impressionist works.