Pierre-Auguste Renoir once remarked “Why shouldn’t art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world.” It’s not surprising then, that most of his paintings depict the delights of modern life: dancing, theatre, boating, dining, bathing, and music.
Originally, he painted these scenes in an Impressionist style, and was in fact a leading member of the movement. However, in the 1880s, he shifted away from Impressionism in favour of a more disciplined and classical manner. Renoir’s work, both before and after this change in style, is some of the most well-known of its time, and still continues to prompt everything from acclaim to utter derision.
If you’re a fan of Renoir, then I’d personally recommend Delphi’s Complete Works of Pierre-Auguste Renoir. This Kindle Edition, like the others in their “Masters of Art” e-book series, contains digital reproductions of all of Renoir’s works, and is great to look at if like me, you live hundreds of miles from a decent museum.
La Grenouillère (1869)
In 1869, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet, who were close friends, both completed various paintings depicting La Grenouillère, a resort on the Seine where people came to bathe, boat, socialise, and eat at its restaurant. At the time, both Renoir and Monet were poor, and exchanged some of their paintings for food with the owner of La Grenouillère.
This particular painting by Renoir, which is currently held by the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, closely resembles a painting of the same title by Monet. The small artificial island populated by visitors in both paintings was known as Camembert (a type of cheese) or Pot de fleurs (flowerpot).
La Loge (1874)
Exhibited at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, this painting depicts a fashionable couple seated in a loge (a theatre box). At the time, theatre was at the heart of the Parisian social scene and the loge was used by the middle and upper classes to display their wealth, relationships, and fashion.
The loge, as a subject matter, appealed to the Impressionist interest in modern life, or la vie moderne. Renoir was the first to depict it on canvas, but was soon followed various contemporaries, including Mary Cassatt (Woman with a Pearl Necklace, In the Loge) and Edgar Degas (La Loge). The painting was posed for by Renoir’s brother Edmond and the model Nina Lopez.
The Skiff (1875)
The Skiff is one of a number of paintings that Pierre-Auguste Renoir completed in the 1870s that show boaters on the River Seine. In this particular canvas, which most likely shows the river at Chatou, Renoir depicts a woman leisurely rowing with a female companion sat opposite her. In the background we can see several other crafts, a wall and a gate leading to a large blue villa, and a steam train about to pass over a bridge.
This painting is often noted for the glistening effect Renoir has created on the surface of the water, and his use of orange for the skiff, which complements the blue of the river. All these elements work together to give this scene of middle-class leisure a tranquil and relaxing atmosphere.
Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876)
During the 1870s, Le Moulin de la Galette was a popular outdoor dance hall and open air café where local people would gather on a Sunday. They would dress-up, dance, drink, socialise, and enjoy a galette, a type of cake that was the Moulin’s speciality. Renoir painted this piece in the summer of 1876, when he lived at Montmartre and often frequented the Moulin himself.
It took the artist a period of three months to complete the painting, during which he spent the afternoons working on the canvas en plein air at the café, often struggling with the winds on the Montmartre hillside.
In the painting, Renoir has captured the lively and festive atmosphere of the Moulin. The light is shown dancing on the canvas, and the Renoir has cropped the figures near the edges of the painting to suggest that the conviviality extends well beyond the canvas.
Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-81)
This painting depicts a scene on a balcony at the Maison Fournaise, an open air café where Parisians of all social classes would regularly gather, often after boating along the River Seine or taking a stroll along its banks. Fourteen patrons are shown sharing conversation, seemingly after a meal, as suggested by the lack of food on the table. All that remains is some open bottles of wine, empty glasses, a couple of clean plates, and some fruit.
The party itself is made up of many notable figures, including Aline Charigot – who would later become Renoir’s wife – in the lower left holding a dog, and fellow artist Gustave Caillebotte in the bottom right, wearing a white boater’s shirt and a straw hat.
The painting was exhibited at the 7th Impressionist Exhibition, and was identified as the best painting there by three critics. Notably, it combines an Impressionist treatment of outdoor colour and light with a detailed and firm rendering of the individuals.
Two Sisters (On the Terrace) (1880-81)
In this painting, Pierre-Auguste Renoir depicts a young woman wearing a female boater’s blue flannel and her younger companion, whose hands are resting on a sewing basket containing balls of wool.
About 50 years ago, the model for the older girl was identified by Renoir expert François Daulte as Jeanne Darlot (1863-14), who went on to become an actress. The younger model has never been identified, although it has been established that despite Renoir’s title for the painting, the two girls depicted were not sisters on real life. (On the Terrace was simply another title given later to the painting by art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel.)
The Umbrellas (c. 1881-86)
This large scale painting is most well-known for its two distinct styles, which came about as Renoir painted it in two stages. The first stage was around 1881 and the second was around 1885-86. The figures on the right – a woman and her two daughters, and another woman opening up an umbrella – are painted in an Impressionist style, and were completed in the first stage.
Contrastingly, the figures on the left – including the woman holding a bandbox and the man behind her – have been rendered in a much more linear style, and were completed in the second stage. The painting therefore reflects the shift in Renoir’s style that took place in the 1880s, when he broke from pure Impressionism in favour of what he later called his “dry” or “sour” manner.
This change in style came after Renoir took a trip to Italy between 1881-82, during which he was particularly inspired by the artwork of Raphael, the iconic Italian Renaissance painter. After this, Renoir strived to give his work the “grandeur and simplicity” that he had admired in Renaissance art, but also maintain the luminous quality of Impressionism.
The gap between the two stages tin which The Umbrellas was painted is also indicated by the differences in the clothing worn by the women: those on the right are wearing dresses and hats that were popular in 1882, whilst the woman with the bandbox on the left is wearing a more severe style of dress that was at the height of fashion in 1885-86, but went out of vogue the following year.
By the Seashore (1883)
This composition was created in the “dry” manner that Renoir adopted in the early 1880s. This new style is noticeable in the more precisely drawn features of the subject (Aline Charigot), the much smoother rendering of her skin, the almost complete lack of shadows on her face, and the more even brushstrokes with which she has been painted. However, the looser and quicker brushstrokes in the background indicate that Renoir had not completely departed from Impressionism. It has been suggested that the piece is set on the coast of Normandy near Dieppe, or potentially on the Channel Island of Guernsey, where Renoir stayed in the autumn of 1883.
Dance at Bougival (1883)
This composition is one of three large-scale paintings depicting two dance partners that Pierre-Auguste Renoir completed in 1882 and 1883, the other two being La Danse à la compagne and La Danse à la ville. This particular painting shows a dancing couple in Bougival, a commune near Paris whose open-air cafés attracted both locals and Impressionist painters.
On the canvas, Renoir captures the spiralling motion of the dancers with his blurring of the trees in the background and the swirling shape made by the woman’s dress near her feet. Our attention however, is focused on the female dancer’s face, which is framed by her hat, as she turns her head slightly from her partner, who appears completely enthralled by her. The models for this couple were Paul-Auguste Lhote, Renoir’s best friend at the time, and Suzanne Valadon.
With its bright colour palette and depiction of modern life, this work bears some similarities to Renoir’s earlier Impressionist work. However, it is more precisely painted, and its subjects in particular have more clearly defined outlines and more detailed features.
Young Girls at the Piano (1892)
Sometime between late 1891 and early 1892, Renoir received an informal commission from the French government to produce a painting that would be placed in the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris.
Probably with the aim of creating a perfect canvas for the museum, Renoir produced four finished versions of Young Girls at the Piano. One is held by the Musée d’Orsay (above), another by the Met in the Robert Lehman Collection, and the other two by private collectors. One of the compositions now in private hands was originally gifted by Renoir to Gustave Caillebotte.
It is the Orsay version that was selected for the Musée de Luxembourg. This choice immediately caused much debate, with many believing that it was not the superior painting of the four. The Caillebotte and Lehman versions, which are almost identical, were instead regarded (and still are) as the best. Indeed, Renoir himself stated that the selected version was overworked.
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