“An artist, under pain of oblivion, must have confidence in himself, and listen only to his real master: Nature”
– Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) was a French artist who was a leading painter in the development of the Impressionist style. As a celebrator of beauty, and especially feminine sensuality, it has been said that “Renoir is the final representative of a tradition which runs directly from Rubens to Watteau”.
Renoir was born in Limoges in France. When he was four years old, the family moved to Paris. The Renoirs lived near the Louvre, which then was partly a royal palace and partly the museum we know today. The Louvre was the first encounter of the young Renoir with art.
At the age of only thirteen Pierre Auguste started an apprenticeship at a workshop painting decorations on porcelain. During these years Auguste Renoir learned a lot about colors and drawing. He became a skilled and esteemed craftsman at the porcelain factory. Unfortunately the company went bankrupt and left the young Renoir rethinking about his future.
At the age of twenty, Renoir joined the classical painting school of a Swiss artist in Paris. There he learned how to paint in the style of the old masters. The art scene at that time was rather stiff and dominated by what we would call today The Establishment. Dark colors and photorealistic artwork was dominant. The Salon, an annual exhibition event, exercised a kind of factual censorship. Artwork that was refused by the Salon had no chance to find a buyer on the market.
The Impressionist Revolution
Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Frederic Bazille and Auguste Pierre Renoir began to revolt against the traditional art style. They started painting outdoors, which itself was considered to be quite revolutionary. The first Impressionist paintings were created in the forest of Fontainebleau and at a nearby little lake. The four friends wanted to catch the impression of the moment and to show the effects of light. The Impressionists used quick brush strokes and bright colors. In the eyes of their critics these paintings looked unfinished and sloppily made.
It was clear that the Impressionist works would be refused by the Salon. So the Impressionists established their own Salon des Refuses, the show of the refused ones. This exhibition had no judges. Every artist who paid a small fee, was allowed to show his art works.
His Own Way
Renoir enjoyed the Impressionist style and he liked to paint outdoor scenes showing everyday people dancing and having a good time. In these paintings Renoir mastered the display of light in a way that makes these scenes so vivid and spontaneous. The painting Bal au Moulin de la Galette stands for this period in Renoir’s artistic career and is one of best known Impressionist paintings.
But Renoir never gave up his roots as a traditional arts craftsman and as an admirer of the old masters. In the early 1880s Renoir had the feeling of exhaustion and that he had done everything he could do with Impressionist style. He went to Italy and when he came back he changed his style to a more classical one. He now paid attention to details and more elaborate lines. Renoir used only five different colors on his palette. And as a porcelain painter he had learned how to combine complimentary colors. The painting Les Grandes Baigneuses, to be seen in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is typical for Renoir’s classical period. Renoir should later say to a friend that he would not create a painting of these dimensions and such elaborate details a second time. The artist had spent an enormous amount of time and energy on it.
When Renoir grew older, his style changed again. It become softer and the outlines more sketchy. He used very strong colors – often reds and oranges – and thick brush strokes. His favorite subjects were young, buxom, nude girls. Stricken with severe arthritis, he was hardly able to hold the brush any more. So he had the brush tied to his wrists. The change in style that lasted from about 1903 to the end of his life, was certainly imposed by his disease.
Renoir died at the age of 79 in Cagnes in the South of France on December 3, 1919.