Renoir: Les Études Essay

Pierre Auguste Renoir, 'Louis Valtat,' Image Courtesy of The Art Company .JPG

Long a household name, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) is considered to be one of the great nineteenth-century masters. A principal member of the Impressionist circle, Renoir made everyday life his subject matter, creating scenes and characters seemingly pulled from the quotidian world of fin-de-siècle Paris. Alongside friends and colleagues like Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, Alfred Sisley, Mary Cassatt and Gustave Caillebotte, Renoir created the visual imagery we most associate today with avant-garde Parisian art. If you think about bearded, top-hatted men dancing happily with cherubic, rose-cheeked women as classically Impressionistic, you can thank Renoir for cementing that image in your mind’s eye.

Indeed, it is Renoir who created some of our most enduring images of Parisian life, and this exhibition, Renoir: Les Études - that is, Renoir: Studies - offers an unusual opportunity to see this star painter’s expertise in a different mode: as a draftsman and etcher. Usually associated with his painted work, Renoir is revealed here in a new light. The exhibition centers on the artist’s rarely-exhibited line-drawings, presented in original etched, aquatint, drypoint, and lithographic form. These studies of the human figure show Renoir’s deep interest in exploring modern characters - men, women, young girls, friends - and placing them into a variety of contemporary and timeless situations. With eleven studies displayed contextually in the era in which Renoir painted them, we present you with an inimitable, intimate experience of Renoir’s favorite themes and of the world in which he lived.


Renoir was born in 1841 in Limoges, Haute-Vienne, France, but at age three moved with his family to Paris. Living in close proximity to the Louvre Museum piqued the young Renoir’s interest in art as a career, and his hours whiled away in the labyrinthine galleries of the museum revealed his especial aptitude for draftsmanship. While most know Renoir today only as an Impressionist painter, that his talents were sparked in drawing seems almost to have foreordained his expertise late in life as a printmaker. Following an interlude as an apprentice in a porcelain factory, Renoir enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1862, where he met future collaborators Claude Monet, Frédéric Bazille and Alfred Sisley. Unlike his three classmates, who took more readily to landscape, Renoir was always more comfortable with the figure; further, his penchant for drawing - and resultant sketch-like manner of painting - aligned with the aspirations of the new generation of artists (himself and his classmates foremost among them) who wanted to break free of hardedged, studio-based, academic-style art and to create directly from the real, dynamic world of France.


The style we see in Renoir’s works on paper, as in his paintings, was fledged in his desire to work outside, but the quickness of his strokes and the looseness of his manner are not a result of the demands of working outside. Painting or drawing out-of-doors - en plein air - did not necessarily demand that an artist like Renoir work rapidly (although sometime he and others did). Instead, the soon-to-be-named Impressionists actively chose a sketchy, unfinished appearance in their work as emblematic of their independent manner. Working en plein air was nothing new. Artists had worked outside forever, making studies and returning to the studio to complete a final work. It was that the Impressionists never took their outdoor sketches back to the studio to create “finished” versions that made their movement so audacious. Renoir and his friends took what had for centuries been previously deemed sketches - essentially cursory work to be chucked in the garbage – and considered them instead to be finished compositions that successfully captured the world as they saw it. After nearly a decade working in their new manner, the as-yet-unnamed Impressionists made their public debut in 1874 in the first exhibition of the Independent Artists’ Society. A shock to the system, their unveiling did not go swimmingly – although Renoir’s taste for painting pretty young women was far more palatable to critics (and won him more positive reviews) than those seemingly incomplete landscapes of his colleagues.


Each Impressionist artist had his or her inimitable style, and Renoir’s, perhaps more than any other, is immediately recognizable. In drawings and paintings, Renoir has a flittery handling of ink or paint, rendering figures and bodies with quick, short strokes that make his forms seem almost dynamic. We can observe that technique very apparently in works like Le Fleuve Scamandre (The River Scamander) or Sur la plage à Berneval (On the Beach at Berneval). As the titles of the works suggest, unlike many of his Impressionist peers who focused on either atmospheric effects (Monet) or psychological elements (Degas) in their works, Renoir traditionally explored lighter, more human-based themes and subject matter. Through his eyes, we get a sense of a turn-of-the-century France in which people are happy, living life to its fullest, and generally very attractive (and sometimes in the nude).

Also, more typically than in his painted work, in these studies we get an increasingly autobiographical glimpse into the personal life of the artist. You can more easily imagine the artist taking to line drawing to sketch his antsy infant son - or a testy Richard Wagner - than you can his commanding they sit still for hours while he paints them in his garden or studio. Here, then, you have the opportunity to see Renoir’s son, Claude, through the artist’s own eyes; nearby, you see his dear friend Berthe Morisot. And, in another print, filled from top to bottom with Renoir’s signature shortly-dashed strokes, you see Morisot’s daughter, Julie, for whom Renoir eventually became a second guardian when she was orphaned only one year after the drypoint was completed.


Not a lithographer or printmaker in his early career, Renoir began experimenting with etchings and lithography in the 1890s and became thrilled by the potential of print media. Printmaking appealed particularly to Renoir for its canvas-like mutability. Etching an image directly into a stone, the artist could create precise, beautiful, linear drawings and reproduce them in multiples through the printing process. Renoir could then return to his original etched plate or stone to add new details, creating closely-related variants on a theme by modifying the original etching. As long as the plate or stone is not canceled (that is, literally rendered unprintable again, often by means of etching a giant X through the incised image), a lithographic stone or etched metal plate becomes a changeable surface for etching, printing, and embellishing a drawn image.


Three of the works in this exhibition were first presented to the public in 1919, when Renoir’s art dealer Ambroise Vollard published a limited edition portfolio of twelve Renoir studies the artist produced around 1904. The portfolio is appropriately titled Twelve Original Lithographs by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Douze lithographies originales de Pierre-Auguste Renoir) and re-introduced Renoir as a master of a new medium. However, by 1919, the year of the artist’s death, printmaking was nowhere near a new innovation for him. As you can see, other works in the exhibition - like the drypoint On the Beach at Berneval (c.1892) - date even earlier, and all echo the motifs that made Renoir famous.

Two of the works from the Vollard portfolio are specific portraits of actual sitters (Claude Renoir, his infant son, and Louis Valtat, his close friend and fellow artist); the other is a more generalized, fluidly-rendered nude picking fruit from a grapevine, a scene ostensibly out of place and time - certainly not 1904 Paris - and an abandonment of modernity, a familiar concept within Renoir’s oeuvre post-1880. While his work of the 1870s focused heavily on contemporary modern life in Paris, after 1880 Renoir believed that reverting back to a more academic theme – the universal, timeless nude - would appeal more widely to potential patrons and thus make him more money. While in his paintings Renoir may have principally refocused his attention on bathing nudes through to the end of his life, as the array of post-1890s works in this exhibition makes clear Renoir did not abandon his earlier motifs (fashionable young ladies, portraits, flâneurs) entirely.


More than any other subject, Renoir loved to paint, draw and etch images of women. From his earliest scenes of jovial life in Paris, in which happy young girls danced and flirted playfully with be-suited men around them to his final large bather scenes of the last year of his life in 1919, Renoir’s women usually share a recognizable, repeated, rather generic appearance. Doll-like, full-cheeked, often very curvy (when nude), and intended to be gazed upon and desired by a straight male viewer, Renoir’s women are placed in a number of frivolous, trivial scenarios, as seen in several prints in this exhibition. Some scenes take place vaguely in turn-of-the-century France, while others appear completely timeless, as in the titular reclining nude of Femme nue couchée or the mythologically-themed Le Fleuve Scamandre (The River Scamander), whose title refers to the classical river god and which presents both a female and a male nude. In a drypoint like On the Beach at Berneval (c.1892), however, Renoir situates two girls in a real locale, with their youthful beauty and innocence in the foreground juxtaposed with the nude revelry in the water in the background, which the girls watch with interest. The contrast in this single picture between the clothed girls - more reminiscent of his women of the 1870s – and the nude bathers is an ideal one for illustrating the two principal Renoir “types.” The latter - idly gleeful nudes splashing in water, giggling, lounging in the woods - dominate Renoir’s work from 1880 forward. Whereas Renoir’s women typically look interchangeable, though, his male subjects - see Louis Valtat and Richard Wagner - are generally specific and individualized.

H. Alexander Rich, Ph.D. 
Curator and Director of Galleries & Exhibitions
Assistant Professor of Art History
Art History Program Director
December 2017