I never used to like Renoir. I suppose I agreed with Degas (who I now find is an anti-Semite—and Renoir too, oh well, a little more about that later)—who called his style “as puffy as cotton wool.”
This memoir by his son Jean, the wonderful humanistic film maker, has partially changed my mind. I’ve begun to admire the man and some of his paintings, too. Jean was wounded in WWI and spent his convalescence conversing with his father about his life and work. These conversations and the notes he made were the basis for this book, completed in 1958. It’s been called “nostalgic” and “affectionate,” as if that diminishes it. Perhaps it does for academics and historians but not for me.
(All comments in italics are mine; all in Roman are quotes from the book).
The first thing I liked was his desire to consider himself a workman and his choice to live in a district of working class people (unlike so many successful contemporary artists.)
Renoir said, “I’d rather die than live in Passy” (a wealthy section of Paris).
I agree, but the rich today keep moving to my neighborhood. Why can’t they stay in the boring old Upper East Side?
Once towards the end of his life, I heard him make the following rejoinder to a journalist who seemed to be astonished by his crippled hands.
‘With such hands, how do you paint?’ the man asked crudely.
‘With my prick.’ replied Renoir, really vulgar for once. [p.191]
I feel a deep sympathy for the following statement too. We are such a rich, beautiful, diverse country and so many people see the apocalypse as “inevitable.”
He had a deep respect for what was still left of the eighteenth century way of life in France, even though he realized how fragile those remnants were. And he deplored the mad determination of his nineteenth century compatriots to squander their heritage. Their behavior seemed to him to be that of a man who, though healthy and carefree, was slowly and surely heading towards suicide.” [p.7]
Here is a description of Renoir in his old age:
What most struck outsiders on first meeting him were his eyes and his hands. His eyes were light brown, bordering on amber; and they were sharp and penetrating. He would often point out a bird of prey on the horizon flying over the valley, or a ladybird climbing on a single blade of a tuft of grass. We, with our young eyes, had to look carefully, concentrate and examine everything closely, whereas he took everything in that interested him, whether near or far. So much for the physical aspect of his eyes. As for their expression, they had a look of tenderness mixed with irony, of merriment and sensuousness. They always seemed to be laughing, perceiving the odd side of things. But it was a gentle and loving laughter. Perhaps it also served as a mask. For Renoir was extremely shy about his feelings and never liked to give any sign of the emotion that overpowered him when he looked at flowers, women or clouds—other men touch a thing or caress it.
His hands were terribly deformed. His rheumatism had made the joints stiff and caused the thumbs to turn inward towards the palms, and his fingers to bend towards the wrists. Visitors who were unprepared for this could not take their eyes off his deformity. [p. 25]
Renoir was the son of a tailor and he was proud of it:
He was certainly pleased (that his grandfather had been adopted by a shoemaker). “When I think that I might have been born into a family of intellectuals! It would have taken me years to get rid of all their ideas and see things as they are. And I might have been awkward with my hands.” 
The family was poor and, from the age of thirteen to eighteen, he painted porcelain vases. By the age of fifteen he had helped his parents buy a house to retire to:
“It didn’t set the world on fire, but it was good honest work. And there’s something about hand-decorated objects. Even the stupidest worker puts a little bit of himself into what he is doing. A clumsy brushstroke can reveal his inner artistic dreams.” [p. 53]
Renoir had begun to go to the Louvre on his lunch break and to admire Watteau and Boucher. He resolved to become a painter and went to an art school, Gleyre’s, on his savings. When asked what he had learned:
“A great deal,” he said. “In spite of the teachers. The discipline of having to copy the same anatomical model ten times is excellent. It’s boring and if you weren’t paying for it you wouldn’t bother to do it. But the Louvre is the only place to learn, really…” [p.92]
There he began to meet the group of artists that became the Impressionists:
Renoir and his friends were in the process of realizing that the world, even in its most banal aspects, is a thing of wonder and delight.
“Give me an apple tree in a suburban garden. I haven’t the slightest need of Niagara Falls.” [p.115]
While sharing a studio with Monet:
All the money the two friends could scrape together went to pay for their studio, a model and coal for the stove. For the problem of food, they had worked out the following scheme:
Since they had to have the stove for the girl who posed for them in the nude, they used it at the same time for cooking their meals. One of their sitters happened to be a grocer, and he paid them in food supplies. A sack of beans lasted about a month. Once the beans were eaten up, the two switched to lentils for a change. [p. 102]
“We have the pleasure of painting pictures” he said. “If in addition, we were smothered in gold, life would be too perfect.” [p. 127]
Jean watched his father paint and makes this amazingly empathetic remark:
… Renoir was to discover a way of seeing the essential nature of things. The movement of a branch, the color of foliage, were studied with the same solicitude as though he were aware of them from inside the tree itself. He did not paint his models from the outside, he identified with them, and thus painted them as if he were doing his own portrait. By the word “model” I mean of course any subject, whether a flower or one of his own children.
I look at this painting and would so like to be there, but then I remember I have been there—wonderful summer afternoons with my friends.
Renoir painted “Luncheon..” at forty, such a loving picture! His future wife Aline Charigot, a dressmaker he met at a restaurant where he took his meals, is at the lower left. (It took him until the age of forty-nine, in 1890, to be able to afford to marry her.) The painter Gustave Caillebotte is at the lower right. It took place at the Maison Fournaise, a restaurant and small hotel that Renoir visited often. The two figures leaning on the rail are the son and daughter of the proprietor.
The Fournaises would rarely give Renoir a bill.
“You’ve let us have this landscape of yours,” they would say. My father would insist that the painting had no value: “I’m giving you fair warning, nobody wants it.”
“What difference does that make? It’s pretty isn’t it? We have to put something on the walls to hide those patches of damp.”
My father smiled as he thought of those kind people again.
“If only all art lovers were like that!”
I could cite any number of families…who, thanks to the souvenirs Renoir left with them, saved themselves from financial difficulties…
“I am certainly a lucky man. I am able to help my friends and it costs me nothing.” [p.195]
From Jonathan Jones in “The Guardian”:
I’d love to be able to show you the dark side of Renoir’s art, but close as I look, I can’t find social criticism or anxiety in his canvases.
People seem to like this quality in the Dalai Lama. Why can’t we like it in a painter? Renoir was poor until he was in his late forties and then, in the last twenty years of his life, he was crippled. He painted on his last day when he had to be lowered painfully into a chair—on that day he was still able to forget the pain while he was working. I think most painters will understand what that would mean.
And he was modest. When he put the brush down, he said, “I think I am beginning to understand something about it.”
On that last day he was painting anemones. I can’t find a date for this one:
He loved his friends, he loved his family, he loved women (I really think he did though it might not be exactly in the way I might want him to)—and many artists don’t. He seemed to have an insatiable desire to see the world around him.
(As I’ve been considering Renoir in the last days, I’ve been hearing the terrible ranting and crying for help of a woman who often spends time on our block. She is desperately mentally ill and goes on and on until somebody calls EMS and they pick her up and keep her for a few days. Everybody tries to avoid her including me. If I’m waylaid, she asks for money. If I give her something it’s not enough and she starts yelling I am a lesbian. I see no solution to her suffering.)
About the antisemitism—haven’t you noticed? Most artists are narcissistic egomaniacs, not enlightened moral paragons. —CNQ
This is another quote from Jonathan Jones in “The Guardian”:
Renoir does not suck. You just need to look at his painting “Dance at the Moulin Galette.” See how its sexy crowd
of young Parisians are brought alive by dappled sunlight that glints and glances through the trees. How does this fail to be beautiful? The play of light that makes this painting dance is something we recognize and know to be a typical natural effect – but amazingly, no one had ever painted such a broken light before. This quickness of sunshine, this fluency of shadows, had never been acknowledged in art before Renoir came along.
And links to two articles by Jones:
This is a link to an interview on NPR with Max Geller, who organized “Say No to Renoir”:
And Peter Schjeldahl’s response to “Say No to Renoir” in The New Yorker: