"Why shouldn't art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world." – Renoir

Pierre Auguste Renoir was born on the 25 Februrary 1841 in Limoges, France. His father, a tailor of modest means, moved the family to Paris when Renoir was 3, in the hope of finding more work. It was in this city that Renoir would flourish and meet like-minded artists, who would go on to become the founding members of the impressionist movement.

Before he became one of the most famous French artists, he also showed a great talent for singing, and sang in the choir at the Church of St Roch. Due to his family’s limited financial means, Renoir had to stop his music lessons and take up an apprenticeship in a porcelain factory instead, which may not sound great, but this was the beginning of Renoirs now world-famous, artistic and ground-breaking career.

Founding Member of the Impressionist Movement

Everyone has to begin somewhere, and for Renoir, that was in the porcelain factory. Though it may not have been the most happy time of Renoir’s life, as he frequently sought sanctuary from his work by visiting the Louvre, it was the owner of the factory’s recognition of Renoir’s talent that set him on his course. After the owner communicated his talents to Renoir’s parents, Renoir enrolled in Ecole des Beaux Arts. In 1858 moving with the industrialization of the time, the porcelain factory replaced humans with machines; and Renoir had to find a new source of income, so, for a time he painted hangings for overseas missionaries and decorative motifs on fans (which were incredibly fashionable at the time).

In1862 Renoir began studying under the tutelage of Charles Gleyre, a formidable artist in his own right, and would introduce Renoir to Alfred Sisley, Frédéric Bazille, and Claude Monet – the other founding members of impressionism.

Renoir would submit numerous works to the Paris Salon –  which, at the time, was the benchmark for success as an artist in France – and, though he often didn’t have enough money to buy paint during the 1860s, but from 1864 he would exhibit works there. However, acclaim was slow to arrive, possibly due to the turmoil of the impending Franco-Prussian war, and it wasn’t until 1868 when Renoir would achieve some small success at the Salon with Lise with a Parasol (1867).

It was during this time that he and his friend Claude Monet, would paint en plein air (outside), practicing depictions of light and water. This was when he and his friend discovered that shadows were not just black or brown, but the reflected colour of what is around, an effect known today as ‘diffuse reflection’. From this time there exist several paintings where Renoir and Monet worked side by side, and depicted the same scenes, i.e. La Grenoillere (1869).

After several further rejections from the Salon; Renoir, Monet, Sisley and Pissaro teamed up (with several other artists such as Berthe Morisot) to hold the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, where Renoir exhibited six paintings. Though the critical reception of the exhibition was not particularly favorable, Renoir’s works were relatively well received. In 1877 he exhibited Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette and The Swing at the Impressionist exhibition; but with his growing success he chose to pursue submitting works to the Salon, with a renewed success. By 1879 he exhibited Mme Charpentier and her Children at the Salon, and his success as painter was cemented.

Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) is still one of Renoir’s most famous impressionist works and represents the typical studies of his early works – snapshots of every day, modern Parisian life, heightened by his use of colour and light. 

What Renoir also brought to impressionism – due to his passion for Classicism, was the idea of an underlying structure to the Impressionist mode of vision. In doing so, he lead the way for other Impressionists, and set the stage for the Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne and for twentieth-century movements like Cubism that would deeply analyze form, depth, and perspective in a modern manner.

His Evolving Style

Though Renoir is most famous for his impressionist style, he did not stick to it with too much rigidity, and allowed his early training in Classicism to help evolve his art and style as he developed as an artist.

Renoir’s first paintings reflect the influence and colourism of Eugene Delacroix, and the luminosity of Camille Corot; and the realism of Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet – evidence of which is Diana the Huntress (1867).

During the end of the 1860s, Renoir would begin his excursions with Monet, painting en plein air (see Renoir’s portrait of Monet painting: Claude Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil), which is where we got impressionism. During this period Renoir greatly admired fellow impressionist Degas’ sense of movement.

But mid-point in his career returned to his classical training and by the mid-1880s, he had broken with the Impressionist movement. A trip to Italy in 1881, where he saw works by Raphael and other Renaissance masters, persuaded Renoir he was on the wrong path. So, for the next few years he painted in a more severe and definitive style in an attempt to return to the Classicism of his youth –  focusing more heavily on his drawings, and emphasizing the peripheries and outlines of his subjects, such as The Large Bathers (1884-87) (a title Cezanne would later use for one of his works). This period, is often called Renoir’s “Ingres period” (after the famous French Neoclassicist, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres).

This wasn’t enough for Renoir and by 1890 he had evolved in style again, this time fusing the two styles of Impressionism and Classicism. Here he began to dissolve outlines again, returning to thinly brushed colour; but retaining the structure, composition and themes of Renaissance paintings. From here on out we see Renoir switches to more domestic scenes (Girls at the Piano) and focuses heavily on his fleshy nudes (Grandes Baigneuses).

Over the course of his long career (he died in 1919) Renoir produced several thousand paintings. Not even stopping when his arthritis made it almost impossible to paint – he adapted (as Matisse would have to later) and painted with a paintbrush strapped to his finger, painting all the way up to his death.

(The single largest collection of his oeuvre is at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which houses 181 paintings of Renoir’s.)

World traveller

Renoir was not only a prolific artists, but quite a prolific traveller as well – often inspired by, or in the pursuit of, art. As we know, he visited Italy to view Renaissance masters such as Titian and Michelangelo, Sicily to the home of his friend, the composer, Richard Wagner (whom he once painted in a mere 35 minutes); Algeria to view works by Delacroix and Madrid to view works by Diego Velazquez. He also spent a summer in Guernsey in 1883 where he created 15 paintings in just over a month, these paintings were later turned into commemorative postage stamps in 1983.

Most Expensive Paintings

Renoir’s paintings don’t go up for auction very often, as most of his works are housed in museums and institutions, or held dearly in private collections. But in 1990, the Bal au Moulin de la Galette sold for $78.1 million in 1990 – which at the time, was the second most expensive painting ever sold. Paysage, Bords de Seine nearly came up for auction in 2012, but it was discovered the painting had been stolen from the Baltimor Museum of Art in 1951, so the sale was cancelled. We wait with bated breath until the next!