In 1877, at the Third Impressionist Exhibition, Renoir presented a whole panorama of over twenty paintings. They included landscapes created in Paris, on the Seine, outside the city and in Claude Monet’s garden; studies of women’s heads and bouquets of flowers; portraits of Sisley, the actress Jeanne Samary, the writer Alphonse Daudet and the politician Spuller; and also The Swing and Dance at the Moulin de la Galette, Montmartre. The labels on some of the paintings indicated that they were already the property of Georges Charpentier. The artist’s friendship with the Charpentier family was to play a significant role in shaping his destiny.
Madame Charpentier’s salon was frequented by writers, actors, artists and politicians. Besides Maupassant, Zola, the Goncourts and Daudet, whom Georges Charpentier published, it was even possible to come across Victor Hugo and Ivan Turgenev there. Renoir was a constant caller at the house. He even signed some of his letters to Madame Charpentier, “your domestic artist”. His painting could be seen at the gallery called La Vie Moderne which Georges Charpentier founded. It was in this environment that he found new customers, such as the Bérards and Daudet, who went on to become his friends. Here too he found more models, the finest of whom was the Comédie-Française actress Jeanne Samary. Renoir was so fascinated with Jeanne, that he even became a frequent visitor to the Comédie-Française. In his depictions of the actress, Renoir achieved what was the finest quality of his portraits – complete naturalness. Renoir produced much work to commissions from the Charpentiers themselves. He painted two decorative panels on which he depicted the couple meeting guests at the entrance to their house and five portraits of members of the family, one of which was the Portrait of Madame Charpentier and her Children.
By 1882, Renoir really did have good cause to fear losing the success that he had achieved in the Salon. Now he had a wife to support. The story began a little earlier, in about 1880. Her name was Aline Charigot and in 1880 she was twenty-one years old. Renoir met her in Madame Camille’s dairy shop on the Rue Saint-Georges. She lived close by with her mother and earned her living by dressmaking. The mutual attraction between Renoir and Aline was impossible to overlook. In terms of outward appearance, Aline was a striking match for the female type which Renoir had created in his work. But in her Renoir found much more: simplicity and sincerity, which had not been lost in the move from her native village of Essoyes to Paris, calm, consideration and an understanding of the significance of the artist’s work, all of which he badly needed. In the period 1881–82 Renoir moved about many times from place to place, perpetuating them in his work mainly in the form of landscapes. He continued to paint on the Seine, at Chatou and Bougival. His habit of working in those places was so dear to him that he turned down the critic Théodore Duret’s invitation to make a trip to England. “The weather’s set fair and I have got models. That is my only excuse.” Perhaps the true reason was Aline – Renoir was just on the point of finishing Luncheon of the Boating Party where she appears: she is depicted in the bottom left-hand corner of the canvas, in a fanciful, fashionable hat, holding a Pekinese in her hands. Yet in that same year, 1881, Renoir (together with his friend Cordey) visited Algeria for the first time, bringing back Banana Plantation and Arab Holiday. After a short stay in Dieppe, he set off for Italy. He travelled through Milan, Venice and Florence.
In 1883 Durand-Ruel organized Renoir’s first one man show on the Boulevard de la Madeleine. It included seventy paintings. Although Durand-Ruel was not always successful in his attempts to sell the Impressionists’ paintings, he decided to open another gallery in New York. Finally, in the 1880s Renoir hit a “winning streak”. He was commissioned by rich financiers, the owner of the Grands Magasins du Louvre and Senator Goujon. His paintings were exhibited in London and Brussels, as well as at the Seventh International Exhibition held at Georges Petit’s in Paris in 1886. Renoir was never inclined to overestimate himself.
In the autumn 1884, the Renoirs travelled to Aline’s native village, Essoyes in Champagne. The artist frequently made sketches of his wife feeding their child. A year later he used these sketches to produce the painting Motherhood (Aline and Pierre). In Renoir’s creative life the 1880s were not so serene. It seemed to him that he did not know how to paint or to draw. In a state of depression, he destroyed a whole group of finished works.
In Renoir’s artistic biography, the 1880s are customarily called the Ingres period. A tendency to stricter draughtsmanship, precise line and clear form, and even to a greater use of local colour can be traced in all the paintings of that time. To some extent they can already be detected in Luncheon, and more so in Motherhood (Aline and Pierre) and The Umbrellas. This last work, painted in two stages – started in 1881 and completed in 1885 – is astonishing evidence of the way in which the artist’s manner of painting evolved. It is fairly soft and impressionistic on the right-hand side, it is far tougher and more laconic on the left. In Normandy in 1884, Renoir painted a portrait of Paul Bérard’s three daughters: Children’s Afternoon at Wargemon.
In 1885, Renoir painted the large composition In the Garden, which became a kind of farewell from him to the “perpetual holiday” of La Grenouillère and the Moulin de la Galette. The quivering of touch, the vibration of light and shade were left behind. In Renoir’s new painting everything was calm and stable. The bright light intensifies the green of the leaves and the reflexes from the bouquet of flowers on the yellow straw hat. Again his model resembles Aline, but now it is already that new Aline who embodies the peace of his family life. The Renoir family were constant visitors to the village of Essoyes. It was at Essoyes in 1888 that he painted The Washer Women, with a colour scheme that again calls the eighteenth century to mind. The inclusion of three-year-old Pierre in the painting made it one more testimony to Renoir’s family idyll.
Pierre Auguste Renoir officially registered his marriage to Aline Charigot in the mairie of the 9th arrondissement on 14 April 1890. He installed his family high on the slope of the hill, in the house, which was known as the Château des Brouillards. This name preserved the memory of a long demolished eighteenth-century château on the site of which several houses had been built. Renoir’s three-storey house had an attic converted into a studio. Roses and a fruit tree grew in the garden. But the best thing about the place was the view. It was here, in 1894, that the future film director was born, the second son of Auguste and Aline Renoir.
Renoir’s health was never strong. Reading through his letters, you continually come across references to bronchitis and pneumonia, which kept him in bed for long periods at a time. A bout of neuralgia at Essoyes in 1888 left him with one side of his face paralysed, and in 1897 he suffered a real misfortune. On a rainy summer’s day at Essoyes he fell off a bicycle and broke his right arm. The artist began to be troubled by pain and the Renoirs’ family doctor did not console him with his accounts of the incurable kinds of arthritis brought on by such injuries. Renoir was condemned to spend the last twenty years of his life in constant suffering, aware that he was threatened with complete immobility that would mean an end to his work.
Those last twenty years, most of them belonging to a new century, also brought great joys. In 1901, Aline gave Renoir a third son, Claude, who replaced the growing Jean as a model. Now little “Coco” was put in a red dress and Renoir painted his golden hair, while Jean’s eventually had to be cut to prevent boys making fun of him. A whole series of exhibitions were held in Paris, New York and London, turning into a real triumph for Renoir. The artist was especially delighted by a retrospective showing of his painting at the Second Salon d’Automne in 1904, where he was accorded an entire hall. The main idea running through the last years of Renoir’s work was the creation of a large painting with nude figures, coming close to a wall painting. As far back as 1887, he had painted The Large Bathers in the somewhat austere Ingres-inspired manner of those years. In 1908, at Les Collettes, he painted against the background of the evergreen olive trees his first version of The Judgement of Paris, a work which he subsequently not only repeated, but also turned into a relief with the help of sculptors.
In 1914 the Great War began and the artist’s two elder sons went off to the front. This event proved too much for Aline – she died within the year, leaving Renoir alone. Pierre and Jean came back wounded, but life, nonetheless, settled back into an established pattern. Renoir continued to work, but every day it became harder. He died of pneumonia at Les Collettes on 2 December 1919, after managing to finish his last work, a still life with anemones. All his life, he remained the way he had always been true to himself.
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