Pierre-August Renoir was a French painter whose distinguished artistic career developed in the second half of 19th century and early 20thcentury and was predominantly associated with the rise and establishment of the Impressionism as a ground-breaking art movement. A pacesetter, Renoir both established and broke free from artistic conventions, passionately transforming and introducing new styles, techniques and subjects into the art landscape of his epoch. His depictions of human faces and figures, particularly female nudes, remain unsurpassed in their masterful celebration of sensuality; his portrayals of nature and everyday life capture the diverse beauty of the reality through the distinctive use of short, vibrant brush strokes – the trademark of the new movement.
Renoir was born on 25 February 1841 in Limoges. He showed an early aptitude for drawing and mindful of the child’s abilities his parents arranged an apprenticeship in a porcelain factory in Paris. Thus, at the age of 13 Renoir found himself holding a job as a porcelain painter. He was tasked with decorating pieces of china with flowery patterns and distinguished himself at this work. Soon more painting assignments followed. Around this time the young Renoir made an important discovery – he not simply liked drawing, but deeply enjoyed it; drawing was not just the basis of his livelihood, but his life’s calling, a source of happiness and contentment.
Determined to become an academically trained painter, Renoir enrolled into classes to help him root his natural talent onto a solid educational base. Around 1860 he became a student to Charles Gleyre, a Swiss painter with a well-established atelier in Paris. Fortuitously, this is where he met and befriended three young students – Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and Frederic Bazille. They all shared a passion for progressive approach in art, free from the restraints of Le Salon – the official, state-sanctioned event and sole outlet for showcasing all new artwork at the time. Together they formed the quartet that would co-found the Impressionism by challenging the rules of the art establishment and the constraints of tradition. Renoir and his friends spent a long time painting outdoors, plein-air, directly replicating the nature in rapid, strong brushstrokes and lively colors, contrary to the artistic dictate at the time that all art was to be created in studio, with careful composition, with precision and detailed outlines, and with didactic messages in mind. Renoir’s landscapes and open-air images of people represent the core of the Impressionism as a radical art form – his illustrations are snapshots of life experience, atmospheric and bursting with non-blended hues, filled with natural light, immersed in luminosity. His masterpiece Dance at Le mouline de la Galette from the mid 1870-s is a famous example – it communicates the joyful vibe of outdoor gathering, the light-filled air of a happy Sunday afternoon enjoyed by a crowd.The nude female form was one of Renoir’s most favoured themes – he returned to it repeatedly in the course of his life, changing the subjects and settings, but always preserving his fascination with the sensual, voluptuous beauty of the female bodies. He was also attracted to the depiction of facial features and expressions and was a sought after portraitist. He drew extensively in the late 1870-s – the numerous commissions he received helped him to stabilise his financial situation which, as was often the case with the impressionists who were consistently shunned and rejected by the artistic establishment, had been precarious at the beginning of his career. Renoir laboured meticulously on his creations, re-working and re-drawing the paintings until he was satisfied with the result.
In 1881 Renoir travelled extensively, visiting, among other places, Italy. This marked a turning point to his artistic perception. Deeply moved by the beauty in Raphael’s classic paintings, Renoir experienced a period of artistic uncertainty, questioning the value of his continuous involvement with impressionism. After a reflection he decided he was ready to diverge from the norms of the movement he had helped to create. Following this, his style started to veer towards linearity and added definition. The outlines become more pronounced, the colours lost their warmth and vibrancy. The period between 1883 and 1888 in Renoir’s career is often described as “Ingresque”, after the method used by the painter Ingres, typified by “dryness” and harshness of the outlines and by a defined, “finished” look. This change is probably most notably demonstrated in his famous work Umbrellas which was painted in stages and displays sun-lit shades and flowing brushstrokes used at the start of its creating, but linear finishing in darker colors . Renoir’s depictions became more ordered and regimented, and black – the color he had previously scorned unreservedly – was now present in his palette.
In 1887 Renoir finished one of his most famous work – Les Baigneuses (The Bathers) which marked a return to his much-loved themes – nude female figures whose sensuality merges magnificently with the rich, blissful outdoor settings.
In 1890, after achieving financial stability Renoir married his long-term lover Aline Charigot. They had three sons.
In older age Renoir was afflicted with rheumatism – a devastating condition for someone whose work and artistic expression was so dependent on manual dexterity. He moved in Cagnes, in the South of France, for the benefit of the warmer climate. Not prepared to abandon his life-long passion, he adapted his painting technique to overcome the deterioration of his skills and continued to draw by fastening the brush to his hands. In 1915, having been bereaved from his wife who had died four years earlier, ill and paralysed Renoir still managed to visit the Louvre for one last time assisted by his friends. He died on 3 December 1919, at the age of 78, leaving a legacy of several thousand masterful paintings, encapsulating love of live and art – joie de vivre in its pure form – as his most essential pictorial message to the world.