Pierre Auguste Renoir was born in Limoges on 25 February 1841. He was the sixth child in the family of Léonard Renoir and Marguerite Merlet. Three years later, in 1844, the Renoirs moved to Paris. In 1848 Auguste began attending a school run by the Frères des Écoles Chrétiennes. Renoir excelled in musical theory and was soon accepted into the choir at the Église Saint-Eustache, directed by the composer Charles Gounod. Fate, however, decided otherwise. In 1854, the boy’s parents took him from school and found a place for him in the Lévy brothers’ workshop, where he was to learn to paint porcelain.
One of the Lévys’ workers, Émile Laporte, painted in oils in his spare time. He suggested Renoir make use of his canvases and paints. This offer resulted in the appearance of the first painting by the future Impressionist. It was solemnly presented for Laporte’s inspection at the Renoir’s home. Showing faith in their son, Auguste’s parents heeded Laporte’s advice. His mother only suggested saving some money first. The future artist’s parents knew how hard it was to make money – Léonard Renoir’s work as a tailor barely enabled him to keep his seven children – and could imagine that there was very little likelihood of making much in high art.
In 1858, Pierre Auguste Renoir turned seventeen years old and he left the Lévys’ workshop. Mechanical methods of reproducing a design on porcelain were being introduced in the larger firms and the Lévys had been driven out of business.
At this time he bought all he needed to work professionally in oils and painted his first portraits. The archives of the Louvre contain a permit issued to Pierre Auguste Renoir in 1861 to copy paintings in the museum. Finally, in 1862 Renoir passed entered the ‘École des Beaux arts’ and, simultaneously, one of the independent studios, where instruction was given by Charles Gleyre, a professor at the École des Beaux arts. This event opened a new chapter in the artist’s life. Gleyre’s studio was situated on the Left Bank and Renoir took lodgings close by, making one more corner of Paris his. The second, perhaps even the first great event of this period in Renoir’s life was his meeting, in Gleyre’s studio, with those who were to become his best friends for the rest of his days and share his ideas about art.
The geographical scope of Renoir’s movements at that time was not particularly large – he had no money to travel far – but there were attractive enough motifs in the area around Paris. The more so, since it was on them that the Barbizon school had developed and Renoir and his friends felt themselves to be its direct successors as landscape painters. The Forest of Fontainebleau provided an inexhaustible stock of subject matter. Sometimes they lived in the village of Chailly-en-Bière, at the inn run by Mère Anthony. About 1866 Renoir depicted that same inn in the striking painting At the Inn of Mother Anthony. The scene Renoir recreated on a large canvas, about two metres high, was not invented. That was how it was when they all gathered at Marlotte.
The construction of the painting is remarkable, though: the figures of the servant girl and the seated gentleman, both facing the viewer and both cut off at the vertical edge of the canvas, and the group of figures disposed almost in a semicircle create the sense of a real space. Researchers into Renoir’s work believe that it is Le Coeur, and not Sisley, who is shown standing in At the Inn of Mother Anthony. Thanks to Le Coeur, Renoir began to get commissions for portraits and this subsequently became his main source of income. And, most important of all, not without the indirect involvement of Le Coeur, Renoir acquired his first muse. The sister of Le Coeur’s young lady, a girl named Lise Tréhot, became Renoir’s girlfriend. Lise did more than just pose for Renoir from 1865 to 1872. She became the first model of that Renoiresque world that the artist began to create. A very young Lise is depicted at her needlework in 1866. That same year, 1867, he painted Lise with a Sunshade. This plein-air painting, with a soft shadow on the face and the pink tone of the body shining through the thin fabric, has something in common with Bazille’s Family Portrait and Monet’s Women in a Garden, foreshadowing the Impressionist painting that would burst out on their canvases three or four years later. For Renoir at that time, Lise Tréhot’s face became a yardstick of feminine beauty.
In 1870 Renoir painted Odalisque. He dressed Lise in fine silk and oriental brocade glittering with gold embroidery. He adorned her splendid black hair with an orange plume and surrounded her with magnificent carpets.
On 18 July 1870, normal life was interrupted when France declared war on Prussia. Fate decreed that Renoir, who did not know the first thing about horses, was sent to the cavalry. He found himself in Bordeaux, then Tarbes. Renoir fell seriously ill and the doctors in the Bordeaux hospital only just managed to save his life. In March 1871, he was demobilized and returned to Paris – to the Latin Quarter. It was there that he learned of Bazille’s death – a shock which affected him more deeply than the war itself. The story of Renoir the cavalryman had its continuation in his painting. In 1872 he produced Riders in the Bois de Boulogne. The woman who posed for the magnificent Amazon was Madame Darras, the wife of Captain Darras, whom Renoir had met through the Le Coeurs. The boy on the pony was Charles Le Coeur’s son. The painting’s enormous dimensions – each side of the almost square canvas extends to about two and a half metres – turn it into a monumental work.
Finally, the association of artists about which Bazille and Pissarro had already been dreaming in the late 1860s came about. Nevertheless, the organizers managed to bring together twenty-nine artists who presented 165 works. Renoir displayed six oil paintings and one pastel. Viewers’ attention was drawn by the large canvases: Dancer, Parisienne (or Lady in Blue) – for which Henriette Henriot, an actress at the Odéon Theatre, posed, and The Loge (which was also called L’Avant-Scène). For the first time in this painting, a wave of light, harmonious, unrestrained colour broke across Renoir’s canvas in conjunction with a composition worthy of the lessons provided by classical teachers.
The 1870s in Montmartre were possibly the happiest time in Renoir’s creative biography. The little neglected garden by the studio on the Rue Cortot that he began renting in 1875 became the plein-air setting which generated the finest paintings of this period. Here he worked on Summer House, The Swing and Dance at the Moulin de la Galette, Montmartre – one of the most important paintings he ever produced. Renoir found the subject for this last work right by his house in the restaurant called Le Moulin de la Galette. It is more of a motif than a subject: Renoir’s canvases never did have a subject as such, since any kind of narrative or descriptiveness in painting was repugnant to him. A certain Monsieur Debray turned the last windmill still standing on the hill into a restaurant. It got its name from the tasty galettes (flat cakes) which it served…
To be continued…Please keep up-to-date on the next part that will be published tomorrow (25/4).
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