Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s father was a tailor and his mother was a seamstress. The house where he was born, which still stands, indicates his humble background in Limoges. In 1844, the family left Limoges and moved to Paris. From 1854 to 1859, Renoir was apprenticed to various craftsmen and found work as a decorative painter. In Paris, he joined the studio of the porcelain manufacturer Lévy, where he was assigned to paint decorative floral motifs and pastoral scenes inspired by the 18th century, as well as profile portraits of Marie-Antoinette. Around 1858, he left the Lévy studio and then painted on fan-shaped fabric and blinds for the Gilbert firm. In 1859, he decorated about 20 cafés with mythological scenes. Attracted by painting, he attended evening classes in Paris. From 1860 to 1864, he was entered in the register of requests for permission to work in the Musée du Louvre, where he copied 18th-century paintings by Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. These were the first works of art that filled him with admiration, and he would remain attached to them for the rest of his life.
From 1862 to 1864, he used his savings to attend the École des Beaux-Arts, where he met Henri Fantin-Latour, and, in Charles Gleyre’s studio, he became friends with Frédéric Bazille, Alfred Sisley, and Claude Monet. With the latter, he went to paint in Chailly-en-Bière, Barbizon, in the forest of Fontainebleau, where he met Narcisse Diaz, who advised him to lighten his range of colours in the landscapes he was attempting. The friends met again in 1866 at the Cabaret of Mère Antony in Marlotte. In 1867, they lived together at 20 Rue Visconti. Renoir was, by that time, inspired more by Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, and Diaz than by Gleyre. From 1866 to 1872, he often painted his favourite model, Lise Tréhot, with whom he was living. Then, shortly before 1870, Monet introduced him to Édouard Manet, whom they would meet at the Café Guerbois aux Batignolles. Manet was to have a crucial influence on the entire group of future Impressionists.
Renoir’s very early work was associated by a hostile section of the public with vulgarity in literature and naturalist painting, which took their subjects from contemporary life. In 1864, Renoir’s La Esmeralda (which he later destroyed) was rejected by the Salon, and in 1867, his Diana the Huntress, influenced by Courbet and painted in full colour with a palette knife, was also rejected. In 1872, his painting Parisian Women Dressed as Algerians was again rejected.
From 1869 to 1880, Monet joined wholeheartedly in the enthusiasm for Impressionism and was, perhaps, the leading figure of the Impressionists. Renoir painted with Monet in Bougival, Louveciennes, Argenteuil, and Chatou. During the years preceding 1875, the friends (who were united, in particular, by their admiration for Manet) discussed and debated their ideas, eventually forming an informal movement called Impressionism. Manet’s benevolent friendship and Monet’s closeness guided Renoir towards innovations in style and practice. Corot, the painters in Barbizon, and Diaz had already moved outdoors to paint in the open air, surrounded by nature. Monet had always preferred painting outdoors and taught himself from the work of his contemporaries. He experimented with the painting of tonal values used by Manet but later abandoned this for the representation of light and hue. He restricted himself at this time almost completely to landscape and to rendering harmonies of colour hue in varying conditions of light, concerned with the representation of atmosphere and colour. Renoir was captivated during the time he spent painting with Monet; his range of colours lightened, and the imprecise spontaneity of the direct impression lightened his brushstroke. The clean and healthy outdoors, the light-coloured painting, the golden heat of sunlight, the dazzling purity of the reds, oranges, and yellows, and the clear shades of the violets, blues, and greens appealed deep down to his taste. He also produced scenes from daily life: cafés, dances, and outdoor scenes. From 1869, he accompanied Monet to the banks of the Seine at La Grenouillère in Bougival, and at this precise moment in time the paintings of the two friends were often confused (Renoir’s brushstroke, however, was shorter and a little fuzzy). Since Impression, Sunrise of 1871, Monet’s original intuition – notably concerning the division of the brushstroke in place of the blending of colours – took shape in precepts that would form the Impressionist technique.
Renoir was called up during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, and, while stationed in Libourne, he fell ill. However, in 1873, he made the acquaintance of Paul Durand-Ruel, who started buying paintings from him. The same year, he rented a garden in Montmartre and thereafter took his subjects from urban life. He kept a home in Montmartre right to the end of his life. Its dilapidated state doubtless gave rise to its nickname ‘Château des Brouillards’ (Fog Castle).
In 1873–1874, at the Argenteuil regatta, Monet and Renoir painted the same scenes again, and their vision of them was very similar. In 1874, Renoir painted Portrait of Madame Hartmann; in 1875 – 1876, he painted Torso of a Woman in the Sun; in 1876, Swing and Le Moulin de la Galette; and, around 1876, Bathers, a subject that he would return to during the course of his many different periods, up to the last ones around 1918. Around 1877, he painted Portrait of Madame Georges Charpentier.
In one of his best-known works, Dance at the Moulin de la Galette, Renoir depicted his Bohemian companions. In 1876–1877, he made the acquaintance of the publisher Georges Charpentier and his family. He became a regular visitor at their home, and they introduced him to their influential acquaintances. From the summer of 1879, he stayed several times at the Château de Wargemont on the Normandy coast, the home of the Bérard family, who were friends of the Charpentiers. These visits coincided with an increase in the number of landscapes that Renoir produced. At the beginning of his career, he had painted a few dark naturalist landscapes; at the start of the Impressionist movements, he had produced a few with his friends. Now, however, Renoir was responsible for the introduction of a lively, colourful painting style with feathery brushwork, the so-called rainbow palette, which was restricted to pure tones at maximum intensity with the elimination of black and the subordination of outline. Nowhere in his landscapes is there a suggestion of sadness or melancholy.
In terms of the Impressionists, Renoir was more a painter of figures than landscapes, in particular more a painter of women. However, he did paint some rare portraits of men, including Portrait of Victor Chocquet in 1875—one of his admirers right from the start (and male ‘extras’ featured in his paintings). As a portrait artist, he was also especially fond of childhood freshness, as shown in paintings of his three sons.
During the 1880s, Renoir’s new associates caused him to distance himself a little from his poorer friends, and Boating Party Lunch, in the open-air café of Mère Fournaise in Bougival, was the last composition he painted of working-class subject matter. In 1881, at the age of 40, he entered into a relationship with his model Aline Charigot, 18 years his junior, whom he had met a year earlier but did not marry until 1890. They had three sons: Pierre, born in 1885, who became a well-known actor; Jean, born in 1894, who became a world-famous film director; and Claude (known as Coco), born in 1901, who was a potter and stage designer.
With Boating Party Lunch, from 1881, and L’Estaque, from 1882, which was painted with Paul Cézanne at his side, Renoir’s strictly Impressionist period came to a close. Thanks to the first purchases by Durand-Ruel, and in order to clarify his aesthetic ideas, Renoir spent time in Algeria, following in the footsteps of Eugène Delacroix. He then travelled to Italy, Venice, Padua, Florence, Rome, Naples, and Capri, during the course of which he was captivated by Raphael. These travels appear to have induced Renoir to question his own artistic style: ‘Around 1883, it was as if a crack appeared in my work. I had gone as far as I could with Impressionism and had arrived at the conclusion that I did not know how to either paint or draw’. This marked the end of his purely Impressionist era and the beginning of a (relatively short) period that would be known as ‘Ingresque’, during which he began to paint in a more Classical manner.
During his travels in Italy in 1880, Renoir discovered that it was possible to paint almost without colours, by the use of relief in terms of volume. Overall, he does remain one of the great painters of colour, but at that time, in some of his works inspired by antiquity, he practised painting with just two red and yellow ochres, earth green, and black. His reading of Cennino Cennini, who wrote a handbook for artists around 1400, encouraged Renoir to experiment with various processes, using petrol, wax, and siccative. He even eliminated oil from his trademark paintings in order to imitate the pallor of the colours of 13th- to 14th-century Italian frescoes and those of Raphael’s in the Vatican.
During his Ingresque period (or, in his own words, his ‘sour’ period), Renoir produced paintings inspired by the rules of Classical composition, even though he reconciled them with modern-day contemporary subjects. They applied to drawings with precise, almost dry lines, where colour was subordinate to line, being restricted to fairly dull tonalities that adjusted the volumes, known as the toning down of the half-tones between light and shade. However, they produced striking harmonies, notably in Bather (known as Blonde Bather), from 1881, Dance in the Town, from 1882 to 1883, and The Bathers, from 1884 to 1887 (which was inspired by a low relief by François Girardon at Versailles). His new manner was somewhat stilted and a little reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites in the smoothly gracious pale landscape and is typified in Maternity from 1886. It was during this period of seeking a return to Classical composition that Renoir worked together with Cézanne, who also wanted to paint ‘Poussin sur nature’ (Poussin from nature).
However, Renoir did not hesitate during his Ingresque period to resume friendly relations with his Impressionist friends and naturalist writers, and he went for dinners and meetings organised by Berthe Morisot in her studio, where he became firm friends with Stéphane Mallarmé. On his way to Italy, he stopped off in Marseilles to meet up again with Cézanne, who was working at L’Estaque. In January 1882, he went to Palermo to paint Portrait of Wagner. From January to February, he rejoined Cézanne at L’Estaque. From March to April, he was again in Algeria; in September 1883, he travelled to Jersey and Guernsey; in December, he was on the Riviera with Monet. In the summer of 1885, he spent time at La Roche-Guyon, again with Cézanne. This constant pursuit of Cézanne, which happened again in 1888, is significant in this period of doubt that Renoir underwent.
Around 1885, Renoir gave up the constraints that he had imposed on himself during his Ingresque period, writing to Durand-Ruel that ‘I have returned to my former gentle and light way of painting and do not intend to abandon it ever again’. Although he took up the general principles of Impressionism once more, his own Impressionism was formed from then on in a very personal manner. While he still took into consideration his new concern with Classical composition, he also returned progressively to a more supple and sensual style and to his delight in colour. Shadows were no longer painted in grisaille but were represented in deep violet, blue, and green tones. In 1886, he travelled to northern Brittany and spent two months in St-Briac. In 1888, he stayed at the Jas de Bouffan with Cézanne and in Martigues. In 1891, he stayed in Tamaris-sur-Mer with Théodore de Wizzewa, and in 1892, he stayed in southern Brittany, Pornic, Noirmoutier, and Pont-Aven, where he returned in 1893 and 1894. In 1885, he returned to the subject of bathers, which he had already tackled around 1876.
From 1890 onward, Renoir devoted a great part of his activity to nudes. He discovered a liking for voluptuous flesh, velvet or satin cloth, and backgrounds of hazy landscapes. The technique he used here was completely new for him, and he practised it right to the end. It consisted of painting systematically, using a translucent glaze of colour. This was applied directly onto the prepared blank canvas, which meant that the canvas showed through nearly everywhere. Sometimes the desired spontaneity of the technique as a way of sketching even left parts of the canvas untouched. Alternatively, one colour was applied over another colour that had been applied earlier. This produced pearlescent opalescent effects. The ever-present white, even in the most vivid colours, as in a watercolour, imparted a remarkable coherence of light to the composition. This unit of light, which contributes to the coherence of all the components of the work, is also one of the principles of the Classical tradition in painting, and this appealed to Renoir from this time on. In terms of the glazing technique, he used the most intrinsically translucent colours, known as the ‘laques de garance’ (madder-dye varnish). It is equally possible that Renoir may have anticipated a progressive weakening in his strange colouring. This refers specifically to Sleeping Bather (1897), The Bathers (1901), Reclining Woman (1902), Female Torso (1906), Wounded Woman (1909), and right to his final Bathers (1918–1919).
The reference to the Classical tradition that marked the works of his last period ultimately also made him change the character of his female figures and particularly his nudes. The Washerwomen in Cagnes, from around 1912, participate in the pastoral lyricism of Poussin, and in the Great Bathers, from 1918–1919, Renoir’s formerly impish Parisians now play the role of nonchalant nymphs. His women still displayed the appetising voluptuousness of his cherished models from former times, but the etiquette of new Classical compositions imposed on them attitudes borrowed from some solemn ceremony, a compromise between carnal plenitude and proud bearing, found in Aristide Maillol’s statuary.
By 1890, attacks of arthritis dissuaded Renoir from doing any more: ‘Landscape is beginning to torture me...’. He would do the background painting for his figure compositions, with the exception of the last landscapes in Cagnes, which he was able to deal with from his home. In 1894, after the death of Gustave Caillebotte, for whom he was the executor of his estate, Renoir was closely involved in the processes aimed at bequeathing the important collection of Impressionist paintings to the state. (Ultimately, only a section of these paintings was accepted and exhibited at the Musée du Luxembourg in 1897.) In 1895, Renoir bought a house in Essoyes in the Aube, the village where his wife was born. He stayed there every summer right up to his death. In 1896, he travelled to Germany. There, he went to Bayreuth and to Dresden, where he visited the museums. In 1898, he stayed for the first time in Cagnes and went to Holland to visit the important Rembrandt exhibition in Amsterdam.
After 1902, Renoir’s health deteriorated because of gout and rheumatism, which also affected his eyes. The virtually crippling pain made it necessary for him to move to a dry, hot climate. In 1907, he acquired the Domaine des Collettes in Cagnes, where he had a house built, and he moved there from Paris. In 1908, he tried his hand at sculpture with Maillol in his house in Essoyes, modelling a medallion of his son Claude. In 1910, he made a trip to Munich. In 1912, as the result of a bout of paralysis, he gave up walking for good and used a wheelchair. Soon, unable to hold his paintbrushes himself, he had them attached to his wrists. In 1913, having had to abandon working with his own hands, he resorted to the sculptor Richard Guino, who worked with Maillol.
Once Renoir had moved to Cagnes, he was happy to discover the sun-filled light on the Provence coastline, which inspired some Greek subjects, notably Chloe and Judgement of Paris (1914). He also planned an Oedipus Rex, and painted a composition in the genre of the allegory: The Rhône and the Saône. This Classicism also influenced his sculptures, which he produced from 1913 onward. It is said that Renoir dictated his intentions with the end of a stick to Guino, who converted them with all his internal passion. Guino has always refuted this, indicating that Renoir drew or painted the figures that the assistant subsequently sculpted. Between them, they executed a number of works, including two versions of Judgement of Paris (1915–1916), as well as plaster high reliefs in the style of the painting; Venus Victrix (1915–1916); Big Squatting Washerwoman (1917); and Maternity, cast in bronze by Vollard. In 1915, his wife, Aline, died in Nice. Their two sons, Pierre and Jean, were injured in World War I (one had been called up to fight and the other was a volunteer).
In August 1919, Renoir was officially invited to visit the La Caze room at the Louvre, where his Portrait of Madame Charpentier was hung with the new acquisitions. On 3 December, Renoir died in his house in Cagnes from congestion of the lungs. He had been made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1900, an Officier in 1911, and a Commander in 1919.