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The instant expert: Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The instant expert examines the life and times of the French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week Jasper Rees looks at the life and times of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the French Impressionist born on this day in 1841.


THE BASICS, PART ONE Pierre-Auguste Renoir is one of the founding fathers of Impressionism, the artistic movement that has become synonymous with soft and seemingly unchallenging images of natural beauty, never more than in the case of Renoir's images of pretty blondes and flowers bursting with colour. No impression could be further from the truth. The huge popularity of the movement tends to obscure its revolutionary origins.

THE BASICS, PART TWO The Impressionist movement acquired its name accidentally in a sardonic, disapproving review by a Parisian critic attending the first independent exhibition in 1874 featuring a group of artists that included Renoir, Monet, Cézanne, Sisley and Pissarro. The movement was created to break the cartel run by the Salon des Arts, which, at the expense of landscapes and still lifes, extended all its patronage to artists painting historical and religious subjects in an established style.

THE WORKING-CLASS HERO Renoir's background was modest. He was born in Limoges, the home of French porcelain, and was soon working in the town's factory, creating designs for fine china. At 21 he made it to Paris to study, where he met Monet and Sisley. His early career was thwarted by poverty - he sometimes could not afford to buy paints - but also by the outbreak in 1870 of the Franco-Prussian war, which resulted in artists fleeing Paris for London or the south of France.

THE INFLUENCES Though the Impressionists broke with the past, it's a mistake to say Renoir's work did not stand on the shoulders of earlier artists. He admired the classical landscapes of Corot and Delacroix, and fell under the sway of more immediate predecessors such as Courbet and Manet, whose Le déjeuner sur L'Herbe (1863) is usually seen as the first Impressionist masterpiece.

THE RISE TO FAME Few of Renoir's works from before 1874 resonate into the present, but he was practising the key precepts of Impressionism: painting outdoors, and letting light and shade reveal themselves in a rich colour palette. Fired by the spirit of experiment and discovery, he and Monet often painted the same scenes together.

THE MASTERWORKS Renoir carved out a highly distinctive signature: crowded canvases such as Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) were cheerful vignettes that captured the bustling street life of Paris, while sweet portraits put ordinary Parisians in the best possible light.

THE COUNTER-REVOLUTION Renoir was not a career Impressionist. A trip to Italy in 1881 found him deviating towards a more austere classical style largely confined to drawing. "I had wrung impressionism dry," he wrote, "and I finally came to the conclusion that I knew neither how to paint [nor] draw." Another volte-face in 1890 brought an explosion of what are now seen as his trademark qualities: the colour flooding his portraits of wealthier patrons, and the Rubensesque rolls of flesh in his nudes.

THE RECORD By the time he died on the Côte d'Azur in 1919 at the age of 78 he had left thousands of canvases. His most expensive work is the smaller of two versions of Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, which was sold at auction for more than US$78 million (Dh287mn) in 1990.

THE FAMILY He wasn't the only Renoir to make a name for himself. His older son, Pierre, became a respected actor, most famously in Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), but his younger son, Jean, had the more distinguished career as the director of early cinema classics such as La Grande Illusion (1937) and La Règle du Jeu (1939).

THE DISSENTING OPINION The chocolate-box paintings of cute kids with peachy cheeks can give you tooth rot - and give the Impressionists a bad name.

 

The four most famous creations

DANCE AT LE MOULIN DE LA GALETTE (1876) A classic Impressionist image captures ordinary Parisians dancing, drinking and eating galettes in holiday mode, flouting the stilted conventions of the Salon des Arts. It is housed at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

LUNCHEON OF THE BOATING PARTY (1881) The Seine was an Impressionist staple, here evoked in shimmering effects in which solid forms and their reflections dissolve in light. It is at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC.

GIRL WITH A HOOP (1885) Renoir's crisper style - he called it "aigre," or "sour" - after an influential trip to Italy in 1881 is evident in a sharp-eyed portrait of a 9-year-old Marie Goujon. It is on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

LES GRANDES BAIGNEUSES (1887) The most iconic of Renoir's monumental nudes betrays the influence of his Italian journey six years earlier and his return to classicism. It is at the Philadelphia Musem of Art in the US. His model, Suzanne Valadon, also posed for several other painters while studying their techniques and became a leading artist herself.

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