Renoir: A Lesson in Happiness

(Originally published in Art New England, December, 1984.)

“Why do you love Renoir?” I asked Barbara Erlich White, author of Renoir: His Life, Art, and Letters.

“Renoir’s work is a lesson in happiness,” she says. “He teaches us to love life.”

White’s Renoir, published by Abrams, is the first comprehensive biography of Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 – 1919), and it is based entirely on primary sources. She spent twenty years researching this big, lavishly illustrated book, then three years writing it, unearthing thousands of letters and photographs, many of them never before published, to document his long and amazingly productive life.

White began her study of Renoir in 1961, when Meyer Schapiro, then her advisor at Columbia, suggested a decade in Renoir’s life as a dissertation topic. Although Renoir is, as White says, “the most popular painter in America,” there was “no comprehensive biography of Renoir, no collection of his letters, no catalogue of his thousands of paintings, drawings, graphics, and sculpture, and no detailed chronology of his life” when she began her research. She became “the only American Renoir scholar.” In the world there is only one other, who catalogued only the six hundred figure paintings, only part of his vast oeuvre.

To write this book, White located and copied close to a thousand Renoir letters and hundreds of letters and diary entries from his family and friends, including Mary Cassatt, Cezanne, Mallarme, Monet, Berthe Morisot, and her daughter Julie Manet Rouart. In 1963 White met Julie Manet, who showed her drawings Renoir had made when he painted her as a child. “My husband and I sat on the same couch on which Renoir had painted her 76 years before.” White also used government documents, contemporary reviews, and sales catalogues to establish the facts of his life.

“It was chaos,” she says. Simply “to establish the facts” was a monumental task. She painstakingly put all this vast amount of information into chronological order and correlated it with thousands of photographs of the artist and his work. “It was a good mystery story,” she says. “The book is a road map.”

White found that Renoir’s life divided into eight periods, in which his different painting styles corresponded to changes in his life. “His art compensates for his life,” she says. “It also parallels his life.”

The life that emerges from White’s book was difficult – “thirty years of poverty and rejection followed by thirty years of rheumatoid arthritis” – and it was heroic.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born in Limoges in 1841, one of nine children of a tailor and a seamstress, who moved the family to Paris when Renoir was a child.

At fifteen he was apprenticed to a porcelain painter. He recognized his own talent and copied paintings at the Louvre, especially pictures by Rubens, before enrolling in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts at twenty. His fellow students in Charles Gleyre’s studio included Monet, Sisley, and Bazille; they became friends for life. A little while later the “Gleyre group” met Pissarro and Cezanne. They often painted in pairs and shared models.

In 1869 Monet and Renoir, armed with folding easels and traveling paintboxes, painted la Grenouillere, an “eating, bathing, and boating spot on the Seine” a short train ride from Paris. “Here, side by side, Renoir and Monet made three pairs of landscape paintings that may properly be considered the first Impressionist images,” writes White in RENOIR.

Renoir loved people and was always interested in painting what was human. In “his most ambitious and most original Impressionist genre painting,” Le Moulin de la Galette (1875), he observed the expressions, poses, and clothes of men and women in the crowded outdoor Montmartre dance hall, moving in a dappled light. Of this project, his brother Edmond wrote: “How does he go about painting the ‘Moulin de la Galette’? He goes to live there for six months, makes friends with all that little world that has its own style, which models copying their poses would not render, and in the midst of the whirl of that popular merry-go-round, he expresses wild movement with a dazzling verve.” Renoir’s friend, the critic Georges Riviere, wrote: “It is a page of history, a precious monument to Parisian life, done with rigorous exactitude. No one before him had thought of portraying an event in ordinary life on a canvas of such big dimensions.”

One of his great paintings of “modern life” is Le Bal a Bougival, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The model for the woman dancing is Aline Charigot, his mistress and later his wife. This was one of his last paintings of courtship and romance, ending his youthful period as a “carefree Paris bachelor” and “leader of the avant-garde.” The next year, Aline was pregnant with the first of their three sons, and Renoir entered a period of poverty, isolation, and critical rejection. His letters reflect his anxieties, failing health, and poor spirits. “I’m involved in lots of things and not one is finished. I wipe out, I start over, I think the year will go by without one canvas,” he wrote in 1885. But his paintings describe domestic happiness and beauty in scenes of mother and child, and in the nudes which would preoccupy him for the rest of his life.

The illness which was to torture and cripple him for thirty years began in 1888. His “premature old age” began. His fame and prosperity began to grow, coupled with increasing physical suffering.

The story of his last decade is extremely moving. White tells it as a story of heroic optimism. Renoir developed a way of painting using thin layers of vibrant colors after seeing the Munich collection of paintings by Rubens in 1910 – an aesthetic decision which at the same time accommodated his physical infirmities. As he grew more emaciated, his nudes grew fatter and more sensual. Selections from his letters and contemporary accounts of Renoir in pain are juxtaposed with photographs and descriptions of his joyful, exuberant paintings.

Albert Andre, then a young artist, described Renoir painting in his last decade:

“One is always flabbergasted, astonished, at seeing the skillfulness with which his tortured hand operates. He can no longer change brushes in the course of his work. The brush, once gripped between his paralyzed fingers, moves speedily from the canvas to the turpentine can, where it is rinsed and goes back to the palette to take a little paint and carry it once more to the canvas. When his hand is numbed by fatigue, we must remove the brush from his fingers, which cannot open themselves.”

The dealer Paul Durand-Ruel described him after a visit in 1912: “Renoir is in the same sad condition, but still amazing for his strength of character. He is unable to walk or even to get up from his armchair. He has to be carried everywhere by two people. What torture! And still the same good humor, the same happiness when he can paint.”

Many years later, his son Jean Renoir, the great filmmaker, recalled:

“His hands were terribly deformed. Rheumatism had cracked the joints, bending the thumb toward the palm and the other fingers toward the wrist. Visitors who weren’t used to it couldn’t take their eyes off this mutilation. Their reaction, which they didn’t dare express, was: ‘It’s not possible. With those hands, he can’t paint these pictures. There’s a mystery!’ The mystery was Renoir himself.”

Renoir’s friends remembered him saying:

“I’m so lucky to have painting, which even very late in life furnishes illusions and sometimes joy.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

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