The French painter Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was one of the central figures of the impressionist movement. His work is characterized by an extraordinary richness of feeling, a warmth of response to the world and to the people in it.
During the 1870s a revolution erupted in French painting. Encouraged by artists like Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet, a number of young painters began to seek alternatives to the traditions of Western painting that had prevailed since the beginning of the Renaissance. These artists went directly to nature for their inspiration and into the actual society of which they were a part. As a result, their works revealed a look of freshness and immediacy that in many ways departed from the look of Old Master painting. The new art, for instance, displayed vibrant light and color instead of the somber browns and blacks that had dominated previous painting. These qualities, among others, signaled the beginning of modern art.
Pierre Auguste Renoir was a central figure of this development, particularly in its impressionist phase. Like the other impressionists, he struggled through periods of public ridicule during his early career. But as the new style gradually became accepted, during the 1880s and 1890s, Renoir began to enjoy extensive patronage and international recognition. The high esteem accorded his art at that time has generally continued into the present day.
Renoir was born in Limoges on Feb. 25, 1841. Shortly afterward, his family moved to Paris. Because he showed a remarkable talent for drawing, Renoir became an apprentice in a porcelain factory, where he painted plates. Later, after the factory had gone out of business, he worked for his older brother, decorating fans. Throughout these early years Renoir made frequent visits to the Louvre, where he studied the art of earlier French masters, particularly those of the 18th century—Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, and Jean Honoré Fragonard. His deep respect for these artists informed his own painting throughout his career.
In 1862 Renoir decided to study painting seriously and entered the Atelier Gleyre, where he met Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, and Jean Frédéric Bazille. During the next 6 years Renoir's art showed the influence of Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet, the two most innovative painters of the 1850s and 1860s. Courbet's influence is especially evident in the bold palette-knife technique of Diane Chasseresse (1867), while Manet's can be seen in the flat tones of Alfred Sisley and His Wife (1868). Still, both paintings reveal a sense of intimacy that is characteristic of Renoir's personal style.
The 1860s were difficult years for Renoir. At times he was too poor to buy paints or canvas, and the Salons of 1866 and 1867 rejected his works. The following year the Salon accepted his painting Lise. He continued to develop his work and to study the paintings of his contemporaries— not only Courbet and Manet, but Camille Corot and Euge‧ne Delacroix as well. Renoir's indebtedness to Delacroix is apparent in the lush painterliness of the Odalisque (1870).
In 1869 Renoir and Monet worked together at La Grenouille‧re, a bathing spot on the Seine. Both artists became obsessed with painting light and water. According to Phoebe Pool (1967), this was a decisive moment in the development of impressionism, for "It was there that Renoir and Monet made their discovery that shadows are not brown or black but are coloured by their surroundings, and that the 'local colour' of an object is modified by the light in which it is seen, by reflections from other objects and by contrast with juxtaposed colours."
The styles of Renoir and Monet were virtually identical at this time, an indication of the dedication with which they pursued and shared their new discoveries. During the 1870s they still occasionally worked together, although their styles generally developed in more personal directions.
In 1874 Renoir participated in the first impressionist exhibition. His works included the Opera Box (1874), a painting which shows the artist's penchant for rich and freely handled figurative expression. Of all the impressionists, Renoir most consistently and thoroughly adapted the new style—in its inspiration, essentially a landscape style—to the great tradition of figure painting.
Although the impressionist exhibitions were the targets of much public ridicule during the 1870s, Renoir's patronage gradually increased during the decade. He became a friend of Caillebotte, one of the first patrons of the impressionists, and he was also backed by the art dealer Durand-Ruel and by collectors like Victor Choquet, the Charpentiers, and the Daidets. The artist's connection with these individuals is documented by a number of handsome portraits, for instance, Madame Charpentier and Her Children (1878).
In the 1870s Renoir also produced some of his most celebrated impressionist genre scenes, including the Swing and the Moulin de la Galette (both 1876). These works embody his most basic attitudes about art and life. They show men and women together, openly and casually enjoying a society diffused with warm, radiant sunlight. Figures blend softly into one another and into their surrounding space. Such worlds are pleasurable, sensuous, and generously endowed with human feeling.
During the 1880s Renoir gradually separated himself from the impressionists, largely because he became dissatisfied with the direction the new style was taking in his own hands. In paintings like the Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-1881), he felt that his style was becoming too loose, that forms were losing their distinctiveness and sense of mass. As a result, he looked to the past for a fresh inspiration. In 1881 he traveled to Italy and was particularly impressed by the art of Raphael.
During the next 6 years Renoir's paintings became increasingly dry: he began to draw in a tight, classical manner, carefully outlining his figures in an effort to give them plastic clarity. The works from this period, such as the Umbrellas (1883) and the Grandes baigneuses (1884-1887), are generally considered the least successful of Renoir's mature expressions. Their classicizing effort seems self-conscious, a contradiction to the warm sensuality that came naturally to him.
By the end of the 1880s Renoir had passed through his dry period. His late work is truly extraordinary: a glorious outpouring of monumental nude figures, beautiful young girls, and lush landscapes. Examples of this style include the Music Lesson (1891), Young Girl Reading (1892), and Sleeping Bather (1897). In many ways, the generosity of feeling in these paintings expands upon the achievements of his great work in the 1870s.
Renoir's health declined severely in his later years. In 1903 he suffered his first attack of rheumatoid arthritis and settled for the winter at Cagnes-sur-Mer. By this time he faced no financial problems, but the arthritis made painting painful and often impossible. Nevertheless, he continued to work, at times with a brush tied to his crippled hand. Renoir died at Cagnes-sur-Mer on Dec. 3, 1919, but his death was preceded by an experience of supreme triumph: the state had purchased his portrait Madame Georges Charpentier (1877), and he traveled to Paris in August to see it hanging in the Louvre.
An intimate biography of Renoir is by his son, Jean Renoir, Renoir: My Father (trans. 1962). A standard monograph on the artist is Albert C. Barnes and Violette De Mazia, The Art of Renoir (1935). Renoir's drawings are richly represented in Renoir Drawings, edited by John Rewald (1946). For a complete survey of impressionism and Renoir's relation to the movement see Rewald's The History of Impressionism (1946; rev. ed. 1961). A more general survey, also of high quality, is Phoebe Pool, Impressionism (1967).