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Who Was Pierre-Auguste Renoir?
Pierre-Auguste Renoir was a French painter deeply involved with the Impressionist art movement. Born in Limoges, Haute-Vienne, France in 1841, Renoir discovered his talent at a young age and spent most of his life working as an artist in Paris. He would go on to become one of the first Impressionist painters, before eventually cutting ties to adopt a more classical approach to painting. He's best known for painting portraits, landscapes, and nudes.
A Brief Biography of Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Renoir discovered art at an early age and became an influential painter.
- Early years: Renoir discovered his love for the arts while working in a porcelain factory and practicing drawing at the Louvre. He eventually would save enough money to enroll at one of Paris's premier art schools, Ecole des Beaux-Arts. His formal education—and tutelage under the Swiss artist Charles Gleyre—would open the door to meeting artists like Alfred Sisley, Frédéric Bazille, and Claude Monet. He and his artist compatriots spent much of their time painting landscapes in the forest of Fontainebleau.
- Birth of Impressionism: Impressionist artwork intended to evoke daily realities through light and color as opposed to purely realistic representations. At the beginning of the movement in 1874, Renoir joined forces with Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, and others to produce the first Impressionist Exhibition. There, Renoir debuted six paintings—including his iconic oil painting, La Loge. Despite the exhibit's unpopularity at the time, Renoir's works were some of the few to gain recognition. Renoir’s portraiture work quickly became popular among art patrons.
- Portraiture career: Renoir's ability to capture his patrons’ likeness earned him a steady career as a portrait artist. Having garnered the attention of aristocrats, Renoir attracted many wealthy patrons to sit for portraits. One such patron was Madame Georges Charpentier. After Renoir debuted Mme Georges Charpentier and Her Children at the 1879 Paris Salon art exhibit, he was able to achieve financial independence.
- Split ties: This newfound financial freedom caused Renoir to question his loyalty to the Impressionists and explore a more classical artistic direction. In 1881, he left Paris for Italy to study the ways of the old masters like the Renaissance painter Raphael. During this period, he treated his subjects with greater permanence and structure. You can see the difference in artistic direction by comparing Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880), which features bold colors and clear facial expressions, with Bal du moulin de la Galette (1876), an earlier work featuring loose brushstrokes, muddled expressions, and dappled light.
- The Ingres period: Following his crisis of faith with the Impressionists, Renoir experimented with another swift change in direction that historians refer to as his "Ingres period." Named for the French neoclassical painter he imitated, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Renoir’s paintings became more precise, detailed, and structured.
- Later years: In 1894, Renoir began to suffer attacks of rheumatism. With his health failing, he moved to the south of France, settling in a small village in a region called Cagnes-sur-Mer. Despite his ailments, he never stopped painting and referenced old masters of Renaissance art like Titian and Rubens in his later works.
- Death and legacy: Renoir died in 1919, leaving behind a substantial body of work and a family of artisans. All three of his sons would pursue careers in the arts: Pierre Renoir, a stage and film actor; Jean Renoir, a filmmaker; and Claude Renoir, a filmmaker turned ceramic artist.
3 Characteristics of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Paintings
Renoir experimented with his style over the years, but a few characteristics provide a throughline.
- Brushwork: As a pioneer of the Impressionist style, Renoir meticulously placed broad, loose brushstrokes to create forms. The texture created from this technique helps bring clarity to the presence of sunlight and creates contrast in his subjects' features.
- Blending subjects with the background: Many of Renoir's paintings blur the line between foreground and background, leaving the viewer the impression that the two are inextricably linked. This technique lends a distinct feeling of place and permanence to his paintings. Examples of this can be easily seen in The Reclining Nude (1883) and Young Girl Bathing (1892).
- Use of black: As was characteristic of all Impressionist painters, Renoir did not shy away from the use of bright colors. However, unlike his Impressionist peers, Renoir embraced the use of black to provide contrast and definition that would otherwise be lost without it.
5 Iconic Paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Art historians and patrons alike continually reference these five paintings.
- Bal du moulin de la Galette (1876): A quintessential work of Impressionist painting, it depicts a busy Parisian streetscape full of men and women dancing and flirting. Housed at the Musée d’Orsay, this is one of Renoir's most celebrated masterpieces.
- Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880): One of the most celebrated works when it first debuted at the fourth Impressionist Exhibition, this painting depicts a group of Renoir's personal friends at a party scene. Among them is Renoir's lover, Aline Charigot, who would later become his wife. There is also Ellen Andrée, a model who is also featured in paintings by fellow Impressionists Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet.
- The Large Bathers (1881): The culmination of Renoir's study of the nude form, this sensual painting is a masterwork of composition and a quintessential example of Renoir's delineation from Impressionism. The coastal scene depicts multiple young women bathing.
- Young Girls at the Piano (1892): The Minister of Fine Arts for the Musée du Luxembourg