Pierre Renoir: Finding Structure
by Cathy Locke
Famous for charming scenes of carefree Parisians and sensual nudes, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was a far more complex and thoughtful painter than is generally known. His work is about pleasure and happiness, giving him the nickname, “the painter of happiness.” He had a keen eye for capturing the movement of light and shadow, which he applied with staccato brush strokes and playful flecks of vibrant color. It is not only his application of paint, but the human element in his work that sets him apart.
As the son of a tailor and a seamstress, Renoir naturally developed an eye for fashion. This is why we see so many well-dressed Parisians in his paintings. As well, Renoir’s work reflects the feeling of intimate domesticity of middle-class life, all of which came from his upbringing. As a teenager, Renoir worked as a decorative painter in a porcelain factory near his home. It was only natural that his early influences as a painter were decorative French rococo masters, such as Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) and François Boucher (1703-70). These painters’ soft, loose handling of paint with individual brushstrokes had a great influence on Renoir.
In 1862, Renoir began his formal training in Paris under the Swiss-born academic painter, Charles Gleyre (1806-74). Gleyre became an influential teacher and was able to take over the atelier of Paul Delaroche (1797-1856) in 1843. Also studying with Gleyre during this period were Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Alfred Sisley (1839-99), Jean Frédéric Bazille (1841-70) and Claude Monet (1840-1926). Gleyre did not charge his students a fee, but expected them to pay the rent and the models.
"The Theatre Box," 1874, oil on canvas, Courtauld Gallery, London
In 1866 Renoir joined the Barbizon painters and began plein air painting in the forest of Fontainebleau, south of Paris. This became a favorite painting spot for Renoir. Thanks to his friend Jules Le Cœur (1832-82), who owned a house in the area, Renoir was able to visit frequently. By the end of the 1860s Renoir was ready to move beyond the restrained atelier environment and began painting shoulder-to-shoulder with Monet. Renoir painted a number of genre scenes during this time of Parisians enjoying the countryside such as Bathing on the Seine (1869) and La Grenouillère (The Frogpond) (1868/69). In these early paintings, we can see the influence of Watteau’s playful quality of rococo art combined with Renoir’s pure joy of painting. There is no feeling of the financial challenges Renoir was facing during this time. At this early period in Renoir’s career he had already found his voice as a painter through these paintings of bustling Parisian leisure.
Color and Composition of Renoir's Early Masterpiece – Dance at Moulin de la Galette
Let us take a look at one of Renoir’s most famous paintings, Dance at Moulin de la Galette (1876). This painting was first shown at the third impressionist exhibition. Renoir paints a merry scene of a crowded dance floor in an open outdoor space, with Renoir’s trademark display of Parisian fashion. If we look at the use of color in this painting we will note that about seventy percent of the entire painting is composed with cool colors – blues and greens. We also see flicks of red and yellow dancing throughout the piece. If we look closer we will see the dark blues are really a dark violet, which Renoir created with ultramarine blue and alizarin crimson. This dark violet was one of Renoir’s trademarks, but there is a little secret behind Renoir’s use of this color, as oil paint had just come out in porcelain tubes and the manufacturers were giving out ultramarine for free.
Impressionist painters were all using the Chevreul color wheel to construct color in their paintings. In 1855 a French scientist, Michel Chevreul (1786-1889), designed a color wheel that was divided into seventy-two parts. This color wheel contains twelve sectors of color: the three primary colors (red, yellow and blue), three secondary mixtures (orange, green and violet), as well as six further secondary mixtures. These twelve sectors are each subdivided into five zones to accommodate different brightness levels. Chevreul’s chromatic diagram, as it is often called, greatly facilitated the study of complementary colors, which are two colors situated opposite from each other on the color wheel, such as red and green.
In the painting, Dance at Moulin de la Galette, the color violet is the most dominate color. When we start at the color violet on Chevreul’s color wheel and we go around to all the adjacent colors until the first red without any blue in it, we will see all those colors this painting. If we take the deepest violet and go across the wheel to its complementary color we get the yellow that Renoir used in the hats, which is repeated on the floor where Renoir has mixed blue-violet and yellow together to create a muted yellow. Now if we find the complement of the warmest red color used we get blue-green, which Renoir used in the background areas. Red has been used as an accent color, very playfully and sparingly throughout the painting.
Building the Composition
There is little architectural structure in Dance at Moulin de la Galette; instead, Renoir is using color and value to create atmospheric perspective. Also known as aerial perspective, atmospheric perspective refers to the effect the atmosphere has on the appearance of an object as it is viewed from a distance. As the distance between an object and the viewer increases, the contrast between the object and its background decreases. The colors of the object also become less saturated and start to blend with the background color, which is usually blue. If we look at all of Renoir’s outdoor scenes during the late 1860s through 1870s, from Bathing on the Seine (1869) to Dance at Moulin de la Galette (1876), they are all structured using atmospheric perspective with little formal use of traditional architectural perspective.
[Diagram on the left]
In the foreground outlined above in red, we see a group to the right with very little value contrast. In the front center area, we see the most value contrast with the chair and the women’s striped dress, which are both against very dark values.
[Diagram in the middle]
Once we isolate the foreground area, a horizontal line created by peoples’ heads in the background becomes very obvious. This line directs our eye across the painting to the group of dancers.
[Diagram on the right]
In the area outlined in blue-green above, we see very little value contrast, which makes this area fade away. The lady dancing in the foreground creates a diagonal line that leads our eye into the painting; leading us from couple one, to couple two, then to couple three.
Renoir began exhibiting works at the Paris Salon in 1864, but went largely unnoticed for the next ten years, mostly in part due to the disorder caused by the Franco-Prussian War. He experienced his first artistic success in 1874, at the first impressionist exhibition, and later in London of the same year when two of his works were shown by Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922). Also in 1874, Renoir’s ten-year friendship with Jules Le Cœur ended, and he lost the valuable support gained by the association, as well as the generous welcome to stay on their property near Fontainebleau. This loss of a favorite painting location marked a distinct change of subjects. By the early 1880s Renoir felt his work needed more structure and he wanted to incorporate more traditional techniques into his work. Renoir was the first impressionist painter to perceive the potential limitations of an art based primarily on optical sensations and atmospheric perspective. He recognized the necessity of composition and underlying structure to painting, so he started to study paintings of the Renaissance and the baroque periods. In 1881, Renoir traveled to Italy to see the works of the Renaissance and baroque masters. Next, he went to Algeria to follow in the footsteps of French master Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). It was in Algeria where he encountered a serious bout with pneumonia, leaving him bed ridden for six weeks and permanently damaging his respiratory system. By 1883 Renoir was back in Paris, living and working in Montmartre.
Luncheon of the Boating Party
Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880–1881) was first exhibited at the seventh impressionist exhibition in 1882. It was considered the best painting in the show by three of the art critics who attended and was purchased from the artist by the art dealer-patron Paul Durand-Ruel. In 1923, Durand-Ruel’s son sold it to industrialist Duncan Phillips, who bought it for $125,000. Today it is part of The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
Renoir often used friends to model for his paintings. Luncheon of the Boating Party includes youthful, idealized portraits of Renoir's friends and colleagues as they relaxed at the Maison Fournaise restaurant.
In this painting, we have the following people:
- Renoir’s future wife, Aline Victorine Charigot (1859-1915)
- The children of the parents, who owned the restaurant: Alphonse Fournaise and Louise-Alphonsine Fournaise
- Actress Angèle Legault
- Italian journalist Antonio Maggiolo
- Actress Jeanne Samary (1857-90)
- Art patron, painter, and important figure in the impressionist circle, Gustave Caillebotte (1848-94), who was also an avid boatman
[Diagram on the bottom]
The structure of this painting is very important and marks a distinct change in the way Renoir constructs his work. The front table guides our eye into the painting and to the horizon line (green line), which is at Antonio’s tie. The vanishing lines of this hand rail also lead us to the horizon line.
Early in his career, Renoir hoped to secure a livelihood by attracting portrait commissions. The degree of importance Renoir attached to portraiture was demonstrated by the fact that in the second impressionist exhibition of April 1876 amongst the fifteen works he exhibited, ten were commissioned portraits and none were landscapes.1 It was not until after his commissioned painting Mme Charpentier and her Children (1878) that Renoir finally became a successful and fashionable portrait painter.
The Sisleys (1868)
Painted when Renoir was twenty-eight years old, it depicts his friends Alfred Sisley and his wife in a garden. He asked his friends, the Sisleys, to model for him because he could not afford to hire models. With this painting Renoir was influenced by Édouard Manet (1832-1883). Here we see much more blending of the paint and smoother edges than appear in other paintings by Renoir. Today this painting is one of the most important paintings of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, France.
Portrait of Rapha Maitre (1871)
One of Renoir’s most stunning early works, it is a formal portrait and one of his first important commissions that helped establish him in the front rank of the Parisian avant-garde. Few of his other commissioned work display the richness in rendering of the sitter’s dress, which is the latest fashion. The sitter in the present work is Camille, also known as Rapha, who was a mistress of Louis-Edmond Maître (1840-1898) for over thirty years. Maître was the son of a prosperous lawyer from Bordeaux, and his circle of friends included artists such as Renoir, Bazille and Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), as well as the poets Baudelaire and Verlaine. Little is known, however, of his mistress Rapha, a girl of Belgian origin whom he met as a student, and who remained his companion until his death. After the death of Louis-Edmond Maître in May 1898, his estate was divided among his family members. Rapha received little of his possessions, apart from two of Renoir’s portraits of herself, including the present work, which she sold to Durand-Ruel that the same year.
A Girl with a Watering Can (1876)
This painting is of Mademoiselle Leclere in her blue dress holding a watering can. It was painted in Monet's famous garden at Argenteuil and shows the grace and charm of the artist's work. This was not a commission, but something Renoir painted to add to his portrait portfolio.
Madame Charpentier and Her Children (1878)
In this commissioned portrait, Renoir gave expression to "the poetry of an elegant home and the beautiful dresses of our time." We see a Japanese-style sitting room of her Parisian townhouse where Marguerite Charpentier sits beside her son, Paul, age three. He is dressed identically to his sister Georgette, who is perched by the family dog. Marguerite was a well-connected publisher's wife, who hosted elite literary salons. She used her influence to ensure that this painting enjoyed a choice spot at the Paris Salon of 1879.
Boy with a Whip (1885)
French doctor, Étienne Goujon (1839-1907), commissioned Renoir to paint his four children. Boy with a Whip is a portrait of his five-year-old son, with the same name as his father. The young boy is dressed in a feminine manner, which was usual for little boys during this time. This portrait represents Renoir’s “hard” style, and marks a distinct change in his painting style. During this period Renoir wanted to add more structure to his work, so he turned to the French neoclassical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) for influence. This painting contains a contrast between the precise lines of the child’s face and the freely applied brushstrokes in the clothing and environment.
Jeanne Samary (1877)
Actress Jeanne Samary was Renoir’s lover from 1877 to 1880. She convinced him to paint two portraits of her, one in a causal style and the other more formal; she did not like either. This portrait represents the more causal style. She was twenty-one when he painted this portrait; it is painted in classic impressionist style using pure bright colors. The bright pink background was very unusual in portraiture up until this time. This portrait was painted in one sitting, which was common practice for Renoir. His brush work reflects the speed upon which he worked. In this portrait Renoir has painted Samary as both happy and sad. If you draw a line down the middle of the face, one side looks happy and the other side is sad.
Jeanne Samary (1878)
In the second portrait, Renoir painted Samary standing against a background of potted palms and carpets, to create the interior of a drawing room or, as is more likely, a theater foyer. This is a much more formal portrait than the one he painted in 1877 and was intended for exhibition at the academic Paris Salon. The execution of this portrait had nothing in common with the art of the French academia; instead we see the hand of a mature master of impressionism with the soft fluid contours, vibrant textures and rich color reflections.
Renoir may be best known for his paintings of the female nude. If we talk about Renoir being the painter of happiness, then we can say that his nudes are pure celebration of the female form.
The Beautiful Anna (1876)
This painting has gone by three different titles: Nude, The Beautiful Anna and The Pearl. The model, Anna, was very popular among impressionist painters. This painting is famous for the color of her skin, which changes as the light changes throughout the day. The painting was called The Pearl because of the color of her skin, which reflects the color of the fabric upon which she is sitting. When this painting was first exhibited it caused a scandal and was deemed “not intended for public display.” In 1898 Russian businessman Piotr Shchukin (1853-1912) was given the painting for free as part of a bargain for his purchase of a Japanese screen. One or two people knew of the painting in Shchukin’s private apartments. Shchukin kept the nude in his study covered by a velvet curtain. At night after dinner he would invite his gentleman friends up for a viewing. In regards to the painting, he asked his friends to forgive the weakness of an old bachelor.
The Large Bathers (1884-1887)
The painting depicts a scene of nude women bathing. The blonde in the center appears to be Aline Charigot, Renoir’s wife, and the brunette on the left is Suzanne Valadon. The figures have a sculptural quality, while the landscape behind them shimmers with impressionistic light. This painting represents Renoir’s new direction in the 1880s, where he reconciles the modern forms of painting with the painting traditions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with particular influence from Ingres and Raphael (1443-1520). Although this painting depicts a fleeting moment when one bather playfully threatens to splash a companion, it has a timeless, monumental quality. Renoir labored over this work for three years, making numerous preparatory drawings for individual figures and at least two full-scale, multi-figure drawings. Faced with negative criticism for this painting and his new style, Renoir never devoted such painstaking effort to a single work again in his life.
The Sleeping Bather (1897)
This lesser well-known painting has been labeled Renoir’s later pearly style. The model is believed to be Gabrielle Renard. After the negative criticism of The Large Bathers, Renoir reconsidered his style, and revisited impressionistic color and light effects while retaining some formal aspects. This new synthesis or pearly style, dominated his work until his death.
Around 1892, Renoir developed rheumatoid arthritis and by 1907, he was forced to move to a warmer climate close to the Mediterranean coast. Renoir painted during the last twenty years of his life, even when arthritis severely limited his movement, forcing him into a wheelchair. He developed progressive deformities in his hands and right shoulder, requiring him to adapt his painting technique. Before his death, in 1919, Renoir traveled to the Louvre Museum to see his paintings hanging in the museum alongside the masterpieces of the great masters. Renoir was a prolific artist, creating several thousand artworks in his lifetime, including some of the most well-known paintings in the art world.
1. K. Wheldon, Renoir and his Art, London, 1975, p. 74
About the Author
Cathy Locke is an award-winning fine art painter, professor, and published writer, specializing in Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries. She organizes annual art excursions to Russia every summer and is the editor of Musings-on-art.org.