Of all the Impressionist artists, Renoir demonstrated sensitivity beyond the loose brushwork of his contemporaries. His works play with very vibrant light and intimate subjects. He often painted contemporary Parisian life but his most touching renditions include portraits and studies of the female nude.
Though born in Limoges, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was raised in Paris. He seems to have had inkling to the more sensitive sides of life; he soon started working as an apprentice to a porcelain factory and decorating fans. Renoir’s great influences early in his career were French 18th Century Rococo artists including Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, whose works hung in the Louvre and have often been translated for porcelain, furniture, and other decorative items.
Although he started drawing mainly for the decorative arts, in 1862, Renoir decided to take painting more seriously: he entered the Atelier Gleyre, where he met important contemporaries such as Monet, Sisley and Bazille.
In the 1860s Renoir struggled to get into the Salon, and he struggled both financially and emotionally. In 1869, the Salon accepted his painting ‘Lise.’ Renoir continued his studies under some of the greatest masters of the 19th century in Paris: Courbet, Manet, Corot, and Delacroix. One could almost say that Renoir and his friend Claude Monet were at the centre of the movement after 1869. They painted together at a popular bathing spot on the Seine called La Grenouillère. The water, movement, light and energy inspired the two artists to become obsessed with the immediacy of light and shadow in their immediate surroundings.
Indeed, they were capturing ‘impressions’ of contemporary Parisian life. The paintings from La Genouillère show two perspectives of the same epiphany and are a unique glance into the roots of what would become “Impressionism” in the following decades. Indeed, at the time, the styles of the Renoir and Monet were virtually identical save their sitting in different spots.
By 1874, Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Cézanne, Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Degas, and other artists registered themselves as a joint stock company and decided to exhibit independently of the Salon on the boulevard des Capucines. Missing was Manet, who preferred to keep showing at the Salon.
These exhibitions received widespread critique, but several commissions arose from people who believed in the young artists’ inventions. Renoir completed various commissioned portraits during this time, full of soft light, a testament to a radiant happiness in life. One aspect of colour that fascinated the Impressionists, and especially Renoir, was the influence of one shade upon another – especially the skin tones rendered by this artist show tinges of greens, blues, greys, or reds depending on the surrounding environment.
Renoir then visited Italy where the structured and rational art of Raphael inspired him, and his subsequent paintings reverted back to a tight, classical style which was considered his least successful. By the last decade of the 19th century, Renoir had returned to form; he infused sensuality, passion and joy into his works. Unfortunately, Renoir’s maturity was marred by ill health. He broke his right arm in 1897, this brought on arthritis which began to seriously affect him and restrict his painting. Furthermore, his eyesight worsened as he had partial atrophy of the nerve in his left eye, rheumatism caused him great pain. By 1910, he was in a wheelchair and his grossly deformed hands had to be bound with bandages to retrieve the chafing from attempting to hold a paintbrush.
To relieve himself from the pain he moved to a mild, dry climate in Cagnes, situated in the south of France. He built a house and studio by an olive grove at Les Collettes in 1907 and by 1908 his family moved there. He spent winters in Cagnes, and summers in Essoyes, with intermittent trips to Paris, to keep in touch with friends, exhibitions and museums.
This involvement with the Parisian art scene can be evidenced as artists like Rodin and Matisse visited him at his home in Cagnes. In 1913 the renowned dealer Ambroise Vollard suggested the painter attempt the art of sculpture, with the help of Guino, a pupil of Maillol’s. Though these sculptures were successful, in 1910 Renoir had written to his protégé Albert André that “painting is a happy occupation since it is capable of maintaining our illusions and bringing us joy.” In great pain, Renoir still completed a large scale composition entitled “Rest after a Bath” and a still life of apples in the last year of his life. Renoir died on 3 December 1919 in Cagnes, aged 78 years; having been awarded the Legion of Honour earlier that year.