Monday, 3 March 2014


“The pain passes, but the beauty remains.” - Auguste Renoir

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (born February 25, 1841, Limoges, France—died December 3, 1919, Cagnes) was a French painter originally associated with the Impressionist movement. His early works were typically Impressionist snapshots of real life, full of sparkling colour and light. By the mid-1880s, however, he had broken with the movement to apply a more disciplined, formal technique to portraits and figure paintings, particularly of women.

Renoir’s father was a tailor, and the young man took up an apprenticeship with a porcelain painter, as his artistic talent was obvious. He then had the opportunity to study at the École des Beaux Arts. It was here that he joined Charles Gleyre’s studio and met many other young French impressionist artists. His art was noted for its vibrant combination of colours. In classic impressionist style, he avoided rigid lines, and merged objects giving a sense of dream-like consciousness. He also painted many portraits of women - often in the nude. However, they focus not on the sexual aspect but often on everyday experiences, femininity and grace taking precedence over overt sexuality.

Initially, the art establishment was unimpressed by the new breed of painters and the impressionists struggled to have any exhibitions. Renoir, supplemented his income with his commissions for more conventional portraits. In 1881 he visited Algeria and then Italy. In Italy, he was deeply impressed by the Italian masters. After meeting Cezanne near Marseilles, Renoir sought to break away from Impressionism by developing a new structural style of his own.

Yet, he never abandoned his techniques of colour that he learnt during his impressionist period and he developed a combination of classical styles of applying paint with an impressionist perspective of colour. Towards the end of the nineteenth century he gained increasing fame and respect. In 1892, the French state bought one of his paintings “At the Piano”.

As ill-fortune would have it, his fame and greater renown also coincided with the onset of arthritis which made painting difficult and painful. But, he struggled on and continued to paint some great masterpieces.

Acknowledging modern criticism of Renoir’s sensuality, Lawrence Gowing wrote: “Is there another respected modern painter whose work is so full of charming people and attractive sentiment? Yet what lingers is not cloying sweetness but a freshness that is not entirely explicable... One feels the surface of his paint itself as living skin: Renoir’s aesthetic was wholly physical and sensuous, and it was unclouded...These interactions of real people fulfilling natural drives with well-adjusted enjoyment remain the popular masterpieces of modern art (as it used to be called), and the fact that they are not fraught and tragic, without the slightest social unrest in view, or even much sign of the spatial and communal disjunction which some persist in seeking, is far from removing their interests.”

Albert Aurier, an art critic and early essayist on the impressionists, wrote in 1892: “With such ideas, with such a vision of the world and of femininity, one might have feared that Renoir would create a work which was merely pretty and merely superficial. Superficial it was not; in fact it was profound, for if, indeed, the artist has almost completely done away with the intellectuality of his models in his paintings, he has, in compensation, been prodigal with his own. As to the pretty, it is undeniable in his work, but how different from the intolerable prettiness of fashionable painters.”

In a preview to the exhibition ‘Renoir Landscapes 1865-1883’ at the National Gallery, London in spring 2007, The Guardian wrote that: “Even Degas laughed at his friend's style, calling it as puffy as cotton wool,” but that “if we’re going to love him, we need to love his chocolate box qualities, too.”

Here is his “By the Water (Near the Lake)”, completed in 1880 (oil on canvas; 46.2 x 55.4 cm; Gallery: Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA) and illustrating his wispy, colourful style full of light and lightness of touch.


  1. I noted you wrote that in 1881 Renoir visited Algeria. This by itself is not strange.. every north European artist went to North Africa and other exotic places, if finances allowed. But I wonder if Orientalism had any impact on Renoir's art, both while he was in Algeria and after he returned home.

    1. Beautiful! In answer to Hels' question, Renoir did become influenced (although I think briefly) by things North African, see:

  2. If Renoir’s paintings are "chocolate box art” give me lots of chocolate boxes!