Pierre-Auguste Renoir is the most imperfectly understood member of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist generations. In his later years, inspired by the sculpture of classical antiquity and the paintings of Raphael, he focused almost exclusively on painting the human figure – above all, the female nude – because he felt that it was only through addressing such ‘timeless’ subject matter that an artist could hope for immortality.
The decision did his reputation more posthumous harm than good. A powerful strain of puritanical asceticism ran through much early modernist taste. So while Cezanne, for example, was lauded for his knottily cerebral engagement with landscape and human perception, Renoir’s frank sensuality was seen as cause for suspicion. So too was the rich, ripe, bright palette with which he painted his late bathers, and other nudes. The idea was put about that he was a ‘merely’ decorative artist, a hedonistic also-ran.
There were always those who realised that this was a far cry from the truth, and that Renoir – just as much as Manet or Monet or Degas – was responsible for reinventing the language of painting during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His most significant and sensitive admirers were themselves artists – Picasso and Matisse, in particular, who were both profoundly influenced by his work, to which they turned for inspiration throughout their careers.
Start with dreamy landscapes, like abstracted versions of the feathery pastorals of Corot, by whom the young Renoir was greatly influenced. Such work carries memories, too, of the light-hearted decorative art of the 18th century, which can partly be explained by the circumstances of his early life. The artist came from a humble background. His father was a tailor, his mother a dressmaker. Before studying painting in Paris, where he met both Monet and Sisley, he had been apprenticed at the age of 13 to a painter of Limoges porcelain, who taught him a light and cheerful style distantly derived from that of Boucher and the French rococo.
The early landscapes are immediately followed by a number of pictures from the mid-to-late 1860s in which Renoir, emboldened by his friend Monet, began to play with an ever-increasingly sketchy approach to landscape painting. The artists spent much time in each other’s company during this period, developing new approaches such as painting en plein air. Loaned by the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, Renoir’s picture of La Grenouillere – once a fashionable watering- place by the side of the Seine – has been hung next to the National Gallery’s version of the same scene painted by Monet.
Monet’s picture might have struck an audience of the time as more daringly summary in its execution. He paints a curtain of trees abbreviated to a blurred tapestry of greens; a few figures as rapidly rendered as caricatures, each done with just a few licks of the brush; some boats clustered in shadow; and an expanse of water depicted in aggressively jabbed brushstrokes of blue and ochre. Renoir, for his part, pays more attention to the conviviality of the scene, which he envisages px7 primal flow reviews as a kind of Watteauesque fte-champtre in modern-day dress. Revellers throng a small, circular, man-made island where food and drink is being served. The river is painted in flowing ribbons of paint that embody, rather than straightforwardly depict, the choppiness of its surface. In the background, men and women are out rowing on the water, against the backdrop of shrubbery and poplars.
Early on, the inclusion of La Promenade, of 1870, might seem a bit of a cheat, because it is more figure composition than anything else, the focus being on a man leading a woman, with a hint of sexual suggestiveness, through a patch of shadowy foliage. But Renoir’s landscapes, even those that contain no people, are always animated by a sense of humanity. La Promenade makes this explicit – man and woman seem both to become part of nature, his face blurring into the leaves that surround it, her dress flowing and fluctuating like water or clouds – but it is the unstated truth in all his pictures of the natural world. Unlike Sisley’s or Pissarro’s or even many of Monet’s landscapes of the 1870s and 1880s, Renoir’s pictures of wood or riverbank never seem touched by that mood of melancholy or alienation – that sense of looking in at life from the outside – that so often characterises the itinerant, nomadic, restlessly touristic art of Impressionism. Nature in his pictures is too alive for that, too thoroughly imbued with the passions and energies of Renoir’s own temperament.