Impressionism: Renoir

by James Huneker

This article is the 2nd section of the 11th chapter taken from the book written by James Huneker: "Promenades of an Impressionist". This book is in public domain and you can use it at no cost.

The secret of success is never to be satisfied; that is, never to be satisfied with your work or your success. And this idea seems to have animated Auguste Renoir during his long, honourable career of painter. In common with several members of the impressionistic group to which he belonged, he suffered from hunger, neglect, obloquy; but when prosperity did at last appear he did not succumb to the most dangerous enemy that besets the artist. He fought success as he conquered failure, and his continual dissatisfaction with himself, the true critical spirit, has led him to many fields--he has been portraitist, genre painter, landscapist, delineator of nudes, a marine painter and a master of still-life. This versatility, amazing and incontrovertible, has perhaps clouded the real worth of Renoir for the public. Even after acknowledging his indubitable gifts, the usual critical doubting Thomas grudgingly remarks that if Renoir could not draw like Edgar Degas, paint land and water like Claude Monet or figures like Manet, he was a naturally endowed colourist. How great a colourist he was may be seen at the Metropolitan Museum, where his big canvas, La Famille Charpentier, is now hung.

Madame Charpentier and her Children
Madame Charpentier
and her Children


Charpentier was the publisher of Zola, Goncourt, Flaubert, and of the newer realists. He was a man of taste, who cultivated friendships with distinguished artists and writers. Some disappointment was experienced at the recent public sale of his collection in Paris. The "clou" of the sale was undoubtedly the portrait of his wife and two children. It was sold for the surprising sum of 84,000 francs to M. Durand-Ruel, who acted in behalf of the Metropolitan Museum. Another canvas by Renoir fetched 14,050 francs. A "sanguine" of Puvis de Chavannes brought 2,050 francs, and 4,700 francs was paid for a Cézanne picture.

The Charpentier Family, originally entitled Portrait de Madame Charpentier et Ses Filles, was painted in 1878, first exhibited at the Salon of 1879, and there we saw and admired it. The passage of the years has tempered the glistening brilliancies and audacious chromatic modulations to a suave harmony that is absolutely fascinating. The background is Japanese. Mme. Charpentier is seated on a canopy surrounded by furniture, flowers; under foot a carpet with arabesque designs. She throws one arm carelessly over some rich stuff; the hand is painted with masterly precision. The other arm has dropped in her lap. She is an interesting woman of that fine maternal type so often encountered in real France--though not in French fiction, alas! Her gaze is upon her children, two adorable little girls. A superb dog, a St. Bernard, with head resting on paws, looks at you with watchful eyes. One of the girls sits upon his shaggy hide. The mother is in black, a mellow reception robe, tulle and lace. White and blue are the contrasting tones of the girls--the blue is tender. A chair is at the side of a lacquer table, upon which are flowers. Renoir flowers, dewy, blushing. You exclaim: "How charming!" It is normal French painting, not the painting of the schools with their false ideal of pseudo-Greek beauty, but the intimate, clear, refined, and logical style of a man who does not possess the genius of Manet, Degas, or Monet, but is nevertheless an artist of copiousness, charm, and originality. Charm; yes, that is the word. There is a voluptuous magnetism in his colour that draws you to him whether you approve of his capricious designs or not. The museum paid $18,480 for the Charpentier portrait, and in 1877, after an exposition in the rue Le Peletier, sixteen of his paintings, many of them masterpieces, netted the mortifying sum of 2,005 francs.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born at Limoges, February 25, 1840. His father was a poor tailor with five children who went to Paris hoping to better his condition. At the age of twelve the boy was painting on porcelain--his father had picked up some rudiments of the art at Limoges. Auguste did so well, displayed such energy and taste, that he soon fell to decorating blinds, and saved, in the course of four years, enough money to enable him to enter the atelier of Gleyre. There he met Sisley, Bazille--afterward shot in the Franco-Prussian war--and Claude Monet. They became friends and later allies in the conflict with the Parisian picture public. Renoir made his first offering to the Salon in 1863. It was refused. It was a romantic bit--a nude lady reclining on a bed listening to the plucked music of a guitar. It seems that the guitarist, and not the lady, was the cause of offence. It is a convention that a thousand living beings may look at an undressed female in a picture, but no painted man may be allowed to occupy with her the same apartment. In 1864 Renoir tried again--after all, the Salon, like our own academy, is a market-place--and was admitted. He sent in an Esmeralda dancing. Both these canvases were destroyed by the painter when he began to use his eyes. In 1868 his Lise betrayed direct observation of nature, influenced by Courbet. Until 1873 he sent pictures to the Salon; that year he was shut out with considerable unanimity, for his offering happened to be an Algerian subject, a Parisian woman dressed in Oriental costume, and--horrors!--the shadows were coloured. He was become an impressionist. He had listened, or rather looked at the baleful pyrotechnics of Monet, and so he joined the secessionists, though not disdaining to contribute annually to the Salon. In 1874 his L'allee Cavalière au Bois de Boulogne was rejected, an act that was evidently inspired by a desire to sacrifice Renoir because of the artistic "crimes" of Edouard Manet. Otherwise how explain why this easily comprehended composition, with its attractive figures, daring hues, and brilliant technique, came to have the door of the Salon closed upon it?

The historic exposition at Nadar's photographic studio, on the Boulevard des Capucines, of the impressionists, saw Renoir in company with Monet, Sisley, and the others. His La Danseuse and La Loge were received with laughter by the discerning critics. Wasn't this the exhibition of which Albert Wolff wrote that some lunatics were showing their wares, which they called pictures, etc.? (No, it was in 1875.) From 1868 to 1877 Renoir closely studied nature and his landscapes took on those violet tones which gave him the nickname of Monsieur Violette. Previously he had employed the usual clear green with the yellow touches in the shadows of conventional "paysagistes_. But Pissarro, Monet, Sisley, and Renoir had discovered each for himself that the light and shade in the open air vary according to the hours, the seasons, the atmospheric conditions. Monet and Pissarro in painting snow and frost effects under the sun did not hesitate to put blue tones in the shadows. Sisley was fond of rose tones, Renoir saw violet in the shadows. He enraged his spectators quite as much as did Monet with his purple turkeys. His striking Avant le bain was sold for one hundred and forty francs in 1875. Any one who has been lucky enough to see it at Durand-Ruel's will cry out at the stupidity which did not recognise a masterly bit of painting with its glowing, nacreous flesh tints, its admirable modelling, its pervading air of vitality. Renoir was never a difficult painter; that is, in the sense of Monet or Manet or Gauguin. He offended the eyes of 1875, no doubt, but there was in him during his first period much of Boucher; his female nudes are, as Camille Mauclair writes, of the eighteenth century; his technique is Boucher-like: "fat and sleek paint of soft brilliancy laid on with the palette-knife with precise strokes around the principal values; pink and ivory tints relieved by strong blues similar to those of enamels; the light distributed everywhere and almost excluding the opposition of the shadows; vivacious attitudes and decorative convention."

Vivacious, happy, lyrical, Renoir's work has thus far shown no hint of the bitter psychology of Degas. His nudes are pagan, child women full of life's joy, animal, sinuous, unreasoning. His "genre" tableaux are personal enough, though in the most commonplace themes, such as Déjeuner and The Box--both have been exhibited in New York--the luminous envelope, the gorgeous riot of opposed tones, the delicious dissonances literally transfigure the themes. In his second manner his affinities to Claude Monet and impressionism are more marked. His landscapes are more atmospheric, division of tones inevitably practised. Everything swims in aerial tones. His portraits, once his only means of subsistence, are the personification of frankness. The touch is broad, flowing. Without doubt, as Theodore Duret asserts, Renoir is the first of the impressionistic portrait painters; the first to apply unflinchingly the methods of Manet and Monet to the human face--for Manet, while painting in clear tones (what magic there is in his gold!), in portraiture seldom employed the hatchings of colours, except in his landscapes, and only since 1870, when he had come under the influence of Monet's theories. Mauclair points out that fifteen years before "pointillisme" (the system of dots, like eruptive small-pox, instead of the touches of Monet) was invented, Renoir in his portrait of Sisley used the stipplings. He painted Richard Wagner at Palermo in 1882. In his third manner--an arbitrary classification--he combines the two earlier techniques, painting with the palette-knife and in divided tones. Flowers, barbaric designs for rugs, the fantastic, vibrating waters, these appear among that long and varied series of canvases in which we see Paris enjoying itself at Bougival, dancing on the heights of Montmartre, strolling among the trees at Armenonville; Paris quivering with holiday joys, Paris in outdoor humour--and not a discordant or vicious note in all this psychology of love and sport. The lively man who in shirt sleeves dances with the jolly, plump salesgirl, the sunlight dripping through the vivid green of the tree leaves, lending dazzling edges to profiles, tips of noses, or fingers, is not the sullen "ouvrier" of Zola or Toulouse-Lautrec--nor are the girls kin to Huysmans's Soeurs Vatard or the "human document" of Degas. Renoir's philosophy is not profound; for him life is not a curse or a kiss, as we used to say in the old Swinburne days. He is a painter of joyous surfaces and he is an incorrigible optimist. He is also a poet. The poet of air, sunshine, and beautiful women--can we ever forget his Jeanne Samary? A pantheist, withal a poet and a direct descendant in the line of Watteau, Boucher, Monticelli, with an individual touch of mundane grace and elegance.

Mme. Charpentier it was who cleverly engineered the portrait of herself and children and the portrait of Jeanne Samary into the 1879 Salon. The authorities did not dare to refuse two such distinguished women. Renoir's prospects became brighter. He married. He made money. Patrons began to appear, and in 1904, at the autumn Salon, he was given a special "salle_, and homage was done him by the young men. No sweeter gift can come to a French painter than the unbidden admiration of the rising artistic generation. Renoir appreciated his honours; he had worked laboriously, had known poverty and its attendant bedfellows, and had won the race run in the heat and dust of his younger years. In 1904, describing the autumn exhibition, I wrote: "In the Renoir "salle" a few of the better things of this luscious brush were to be found, paintings of his middle period, that first won him favour. For example, Sur la Terrasse, with its audacious crimson, like the imperious challenge of a trumpet; La Loge and its gorgeous fabrics; a Baigneuse in a light-green scheme; the quaint head of Jeanne Samary--a rival portrait to Besnard's faun-like Réjane--and a lot of Renoir's later experimentings, as fugitive as music; exploding bouquets of iridescence; swirling panels, depicting scenes from Tannhäuser; a flower garden composed of buds and blossoms in colour scales that begin at a bass-emerald and ascend to an altitudinous green where green is no longer green but an opaline reverberation. We know how exquisitely Renoir moulds his female heads, building up, cell by cell, the entire mask. The simple gestures of daily life have been recorded by Renoir for the past forty years with a fidelity and a vitality that shames the anæmic imaginings and puling pessimisms of his younger contemporaries. What versatility, what undaunted desire to conquer new problems! He has in turn painted landscapes as full of distinction as Monet's. The nervous vivacity of his brush, his love of rendered surfaces, of melting Boucher-like heads, and of a dazzling Watteau colour synthesis have endeared him to the discriminating." He may be deficient in spiritual elevation--as were Manet, Monet, and the other Impressionists; but as they were primarily interested in problems of lighting, in painting the sun and driving the old mud gods of academic art from their thrones, it is not strange that the new men became so enamoured of the coloured appearances of life that they left out the ghosts of the ideal (that dusty, battered phrase) and proclaimed themselves rank sun-worshippers. The generation that succeeded them is endeavouring to restore the balance between unblushing pantheism and the earlier mysticism. But wherever a Renoir hangs there will be eyes to feast upon his opulent and sonorous colour music.