My ‘Pretty’ Paintings, by Renoir

Renoir’s iconic Bal du moulin de la Galette, which sold at auction for $78.1 million
Renoir’s iconic Bal du moulin de la Galette, which sold at auction for $78.1 million

by Ray Setterfield

February 25, 1841 — Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born on this day. Regarded now as one of the world’s greatest painters, he was nearly lost to the art world by his early love of music.

As a child Renoir loved to sing and was introduced by his teacher to Charles Gounod, choirmaster of the celebrated Saint Eustache church boys' choir in Paris. (Gounod went on to international acclaim as the composer of Ave Maria and several operas).

Impressed by what he heard, Gounod gave Renoir a place in the choir as well as private singing lessons and offered to give the boy a complete musical education.

But Renoir’s father was a tailor of modest means and the family could not afford to take up the offer. And anyway, as the painter’s son Jean later wrote, her father “had a feeling that he was not made for that sort of thing” – life as a performer.

So Renoir left school at the age of thirteen and became an apprentice at a porcelain factory where he learned to decorate plates with bouquets of flowers.

The family had moved from Limoges in south-west France, where Renoir was born, to Paris, and there, around 1861, he joined the teaching studio of the fashionable painter Charles Gleyre.

While there, he met a group of like-minded artists including Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro, who formed the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers, later known as the Impressionists.

Their name comes from a critical review of their art, in which the works were called "impressions" rather than finished paintings created by traditional methods. The group mounted their first exhibition in 1874, at which Renoir showed six paintings.

Always modest about his work, “What are paintings for, after all?” he once asked, and answered the question himself: “To decorate walls.”

Millions would disagree. And in 1990 when the auctioneers Sotheby’s put up for sale in New York Renoir’s iconic Bal du moulin de la Galette, the catalogue described it as “a prime example of Renoir’s facility in capturing shimmering dappled light. The painting’s vibrant colors and loose brushwork evoke the joyous open-air revelry of a Sunday afternoon in Montmartre.”

The original painting, created in 1876, measures over four by six feet (122 x 188cm) and today hangs in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. The smaller version offered by Sotheby’s was owned by John Hay Whitney, a financier, publisher and former ambassador to Britain. It sold for $78.1 million.

The highest price paid for a Renoir before the Sotheby’s sale was $17.7 million in April 1989, for La Promenade. It was bought by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu.

Renoir would be amazed, if not amused by these prices. He dismissed the notion that he was a great artist because, he said, he was “not syphilitic, homosexual or insane!” And in describing his own work, he said: “To my mind, a picture should be something pleasant, cheerful and pretty. Yes, pretty! There are too many unpleasant things in life as it is without creating still more of them.”

One of the unpleasant things in life that was lying in wait for Renoir was the disease rheumatoid arthritis. It began to take hold of his body when he was in his fifties.

He developed progressive deformities in his hands and stiffness of his right shoulder to the point when his hand became so deformed that he could no longer pick up a brush. To continue painting, one was carefully placed into his clenched hand by his wife or a model, his hand wrapped with soft cloth to prevent sores.

An article in the journal Hand in December 2012 described how Renoir invented a moving canvas that replaced his easel:

“A linen was attached to wooden slats which turned on spindles that were connected to a chain from his old bicycle. By using that, he was able to move a canvas up and down and still create very large paintings. This compensated for his inability to get up and down by himself easily, and for limitations with his arms and shoulder.”

He also employed a system of horizontal cylinders and a crank that would bring a particular section of the canvas within reach of his disfigured hand while he remained sitting.

By these means Renoir continued painting and maintaining a relatively cheerful disposition until his death at the age of 78. Artist Henri Matisse, who met Renoir in his old age, said: “As his body dwindled, the soul in him seemed to grow stronger continually and express itself with more radiant ease.” Art critics agree that his later works are saturated in vibrant colour and teeming with positive energy.

Published: February 14, 2021

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