Late Renoir, 1892-1919

by I. Spaak, France

Isabelle SPAAK, Journalist

“I am at a dead end,” confessed the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841- 1919), one of the emblematic figures of the Impressionist movement of the 1870s, in 1880. “I have finally come to the conclusion that I can no longer paint or draw,” said the artist on giving up the “direct observation of reality” to return to “museum art,” drawing, and the great masters. Inspired by eighteenth century painting and by the works of Raphael, Titian, and Rubens that he discovered during his numerous travels, the painter began painting nudes, which became increasingly voluptuous in character. Although already universally esteemed as an artist, Renoir ushered in a new era at the beginning of the 1890s. “Renoir is growing continuously,” wrote the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. “His latest paintings are the most beautiful. They are also his freshest.” The painter reconciled open air with workshop, plein air with atelier, to invent a type of art centered on the representation of enormous odalisques (virgin female slaves who lived in Ottoman seraglios). Although less well known than his Impressionist period, this era of artistic maturity is marked by great freedom in the use of color, subject, and technique and produced works that are ripe for rediscovery.

Medicographia. 2009;31:324-332 (see French abstract on page 332)

“You are a Renoir!” exclaimed Henri Matisse to a young seventeen-year-old girl who had come to pose for him. Matisse was not mistaken in his assumption. On his recommendation, Andrée Heuschling presented herself to the old master and was accepted. Her carefree attitude brightened up the painter’s last days, and her magnificent skin illuminates his canvasses. She transcends in The Bathers (1919), his final masterpiece. The redhead’s milky complexion “caught the light better than that of any other model,” said the artist. The latter part of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s life, however, was not untroubled. Renoir, a key figure of the Impressionist movement of the 1870s, underwent a major artistic crisis around 1880. The creator of the Dance at the Moulin de la Galette (1876), The Swing (1876), and Luncheon of the Boat Party (1881) found himself at a dead end. Toward the end of his exploration into open-air painting, he admitted: “I have finally come to the conclusion that I can no longer paint or draw.”

Over the next ten years, the painter tried to find a direction for his art again. The solution was to be found in museums, he believed: “That is where one gets the taste for painting which nature, on its own, cannot give you.” He gradually turned away from open-air, or plein air, painting and the “direct observation of reality” and returned to drawing and more traditional and decorative subjects. He traveled to Algeria, in the footsteps of Delacroix, and to Italy, where he discovered the frescoes of Raphael.

By carefully observing and learning from the work of these masters, he finally managed to overcome his own doubts and, from 1890 onward, once again enjoyed undisputed recognition on the international scene. Alongside his friends Monet and Cézanne, he became a reference for aspiring young painters, such as Picasso, Bonnard, Matisse, and Maurice Denis. Inspired by Greek mythology, Provençal landscapes, and the great painters of the preceding centuries, including Titian, Rubens, and Boucher, his later work was devoted to the female nude, scenes of domestic happiness, and portraits that were iridescent and highly sensual. Universally admired at the time, although much less appreciated today, his later work is still of major importance. This work is dominated by the representation of enormous odalisques (virgin female slaves who lived in Ottoman seraglios) and was very much a labor of love. For behind the beauty of these magnificent paintings lies the fact that the painter was suffering from excruciating pain. This pain, caused by violent rheumatic attacks, eventually cost him the use of his legs and shriveled up his hands.

In the company of women

Dating from 1919, the year of the painter’s death, The Bathers is regarded by Renoir himself as the true culmination of his work. Two languid muses lie outdoors in the foreground of the canvas offering their ample charms to the viewer.

The warm colors seem to fuse with accents of light. Further back, three naked nymphs frolic in the water. The full shapes of their huge figures, their contentment, and the way in which they melt harmoniously into the landscape attest to Renoir’s perfect pictorial mastery.

“He felt that he had epitomized the pursuits of his entire life and prepared a good springboard for investigations to come,” wrote the scriptwriter Jean Renoir, in a book of memoirs devoted to his father.

Look at the light on the olive trees… it sparkles like diamond. It is pink, it is blue… And the sky breaking through is enough to drive you mad. And the mountains over there which change with the clouds… it is a Watteau background, one could say. Ah, this breast! Isn’t it soft and heavy! The pretty fold beneath with its golden tone… an object of worship. Had there not been nipples, I believe that I would never have painted faces,” Renoir intimated enthusiastically.

Culmination of a life’s work: The Bathers. Oil on canvas (1.11.6 m), 1918/1919. © RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski.

His words conjure up the primary source of his inspiration: women. “He found fulfillment on both the physical and spiritual planes when he was in their company,” recounted his son as he painted a metaphorical portrait of his father surrounded by women until the end of his life.

In his old age when handicapped by arthritis, it was suggested that he take on a manservant. He refused. “I cannot tolerate anyone but women around me,” he stubbornly insisted, quite content with his not-so-conventional (an army of young girls employed at his home for more than 30 years) domestic arrangements.

Maidservants and models

From nursemaids to nannies via the cook, all female members of the Renoir household staff posed for the master. This legion of beautiful countrywomen, hired for their domestic qualities as much as for their shapes, went from domestic duties to undressing with astounding naturalness and no apparent problems. Neither thought nor malice ventured to trouble their faces.

The Bather. Oil on canvas (9273 cm), circa 1903. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. © Bridgeman-Giraudon.

However, Renoir detested the idea that they could think. These young, healthy girls were depicted by the painter as the fruits and flowers of the Garden of Eden. “I came to loathe one of my canvasses when it was christened The Thought… this young girl had never had a thought in her life. She lived like a bird, and nothing more,” said a worked-up Renoir. “My models don’t think,” he exclaimed, more concerned with physical flesh than with metaphysical thought. Perhaps it was the dayto- day familiarity with these young ladies that made it possible for the models to forget him, to get carried away by their thoughts, and for Renoir to depict them with such simplicity.

Seated Bather in a Landscape, called Eurydice (1895-1900). Oil on canvas (11689 cm). Musée Picasso, Paris, France. © RMN/René-Gabriel Ojéda.

Even though he admitted to a reckless love of the female form, preferably radiant and in full bloom, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was, nevertheless, nothing of a womanizer. “I feel sorry for men who don’t stop running after women,” he said. “What work! On the go day and night, without a minute’s rest! I knew painters who never completed a piece of work because, instead of painting their models, they were seducing them”. This was far from being the case with him.

Renoir was never licentious and treated his models with a lot of respect, encouraging them to pose very freely without insisting upon immobility. The young girls, in turn, would display their nudity like an offering, without prudishness. The model “is only there to inspire me,” said the painter, “to enable me to dare things which I would not be able to without her”. The artist would walk around them in order to create an impression of being everywhere on canvas, as Picasso would later do when simultaneously showing the front, back, face, and profile of his subjects.

Une Baigneuse. Oil on canvas (39.429.2 cm). Presented by
Sir Anthony and Lady Hornby to the National Gallery, London, United Kingdom. © RMN/Photographic Department.

Seated Bather Drying Her Leg (1905). São Paulo Museum, São Paulo, Brazil. © Francis G. Meyer/CORBIS.

Homage to the great masters

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the so-called “painter of happiness,” was 40 when he became obsessed with nudes. He had to wait until he had finished with the shattered lines and simultaneous contrasts in color so dear to impressionism before returning to the techniques of contour and line that allowed him to portray the voluptuous pleasures of skin.

For him, it wasn’t just a question of atomizing bodies or of reducing them to splashes of paint. When Renoir painted a woman, he wanted to show her contours and give expression to her shape. He wanted spectators to want to touch and caress her curves. Renoir’s nudes “come from the light of desire,” wrote the French critic Gaëtan Picon.

From that time onward, inspired by the great masters, he never ceased trying to perfect the outline of the body, which surpassed individuality to attain a sort of physical ideal modeled on the paintings of Boucher, Titian, and Rubens.

I would say with great certainty that Diana Getting out of Her Bath by Boucher is the first painting that grabbed me and that I have continued to love all my life, the way one always loves first loves. Boucher remains one of the painters who best understood the body of a woman. He painted youthful bottoms, small dimples, and only what was necessary. People will say to you: I prefer a Rubens to a Boucher! Of course, so do I! But, after all is said and done, Boucher painted some very pretty young women.

Nearly invading the entire canvas and only hinting at greenery in a background reduced to a minimum, Seated Bather Drying Her Leg (1905) is another tribute. This time, Renoir calls forth the “genius of Rubens, the merry visual thrill that one experiences in front of his painting”.

He modeled himself on the Flemish master in the delicate rendering and subtlety of touch. “There’s the most dazzling plenitude and the most beautiful color, but the painting itself is very thin,” he said, recalling the paintings discovered on a journey to Munich in 1910. To give expression to the splendor of the body, Renoir uses color sparingly. He brings flesh, dominated by pinks and whites, to life by using hints of dull shades, undulating movements of the brush to fill in a character’s shape, and luminous highlights to catch the eye. “He paints like a true poet,” wrote the French novelist, poet, and critic Camille Mauclair in 1903.

Baigneuse aux cheveux longs (8265 cm), circa 1895. Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, France. © RMN/Franck Raux.

An intimate moment featuring Renoir’s main muse Gabrielle, with his middle son, Jean, in Gabrielle and Jean. Oil on canvas (6554 cm), Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume Collection at the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, France. © RMN/Hervé Lewandowski.

Tenderness and sensuality

The modest household employees were transfigured by their elegiac nudity when they were represented in the intimacy of their washing and bathing rituals: Bather Arranging Her Hair (1893); coming out of a bath in Large Nude (1907); or in a rural universe before original sin, like the magnificent Bather with Long Hair (1895), in which the ancient splendor corresponds to a kind of female ideal sought by the artist.

All of the maidservants embodied a set of well-defined aesthetic attributes perfectly: gently receding shoulders; heavy bodied; small, firm breasts; small, round heads; luminous eyes; and full lips. Behind all the anonymous faces, there often hides the face of a favorite model, Gabrielle Renard, a young cousin of Mrs Renoir. Gabrielle also originated from Essoye, a charming little village in the Aube where the Renoirs acquired a house in 1895. Gabrielle entered into service with the Renoir family in 1894, at the age of fourteen, and remained with the family until 1914. She was in charge of looking after Pierre-Auguste’s middle son, Jean, and she was an integral part of many of the paintings of his children: Gabrielle and Jean (1895-1896); The Child and His Nanny (1895); and The Family of the Artist (1896), which depicted radiant scenes illustrating the maternal affection she felt for the painter’s three sons, Pierre, Jean, and Claude, who likewise adored her. As this new artistic freedom was dawning, Renoir was also experiencing the happiness of family life. His eldest son, Pierre, was born in 1885 to a young dressmaker, Aline Charigot. He married her five years later in 1890, and they had two more sons, Jean (1894) and Claude (1901).

His wife and three children contributed to his harmony and inspired him. “I am, at this moment, painting one of Jean’s pouts. This work is personal and only for me.” Being an attentive and affectionate father fascinated by the development of these small human beings, he gave them complete freedom. “My child and wife behave in the same way,” he said. “Both of them are impulsive and entirely driven by the logic of their instincts. What makes them dangerous is the power to charm they have at their disposal.” His children feature in many of his pieces. Claude, dressed up in a red costume and a ruff, posed for The Clown (1909), in the manner of Gilles (1713-1721) by Watteau. While, in addition to the innumerable portraits of his little boy with their nanny, Jean Renoir as Hunter (1910) shows his middle son in the same pose as that seen in the Vélazquez masterpiece.

The muse Gabrielle

Despite the love of his family, none of them was responsible for looking after their father; that role was reserved for Gabrielle. The young girl serenely played the part of nanny and model, posing partially clothed or completely naked. As well as inspiring a series of reclining odalisques, she even agreed to pose as the male figure of Paris in the 1908 painting Judgment of Paris, so uneasy was Renoir with the male musculature of an actor he had invited to pose for him. The works depicting Gabrielle, Renoir’s ever attentive and faithful muse, always have an intoxicating and alluring aura that is often lacking in the portraits of fashionable society members, even when they include ravishing women like Mrs Gaston Bernheim de Villers (1901).

Claude Renoir, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s youngest son, in a clown costume. Oil on canvas (12077 cm), 1909. Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, France. © Bridgeman-Giraudon.

Jean Renoir (1894-1979) as The White Pierrot. Oil on canvas (79.161.9 cm), 1901/02. The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, USA (bequest of Robert H. Tannahill). © Bridgeman-Giraudon.

Gabrielle with Jewellry (1910). Oil on canvas (8166 cm). Private collection. © Bridgeman-Giraudon.

Portrait of Renoir’s children’s nanny, Gabrielle Renard (1878-1959) 1911. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France. © RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski.

Renoir took pleasure in making Gabrielle beautiful, by adorning her with necklaces and light fabrics, as in Gabrielle with Jewels (circa 1910), or by putting a rose in her hair (in Gabrielle with a Rose [1911]). For the painter, these attributes symbolized the female sex at its most intimate. He makes use of these accessories many times in order to impart a characteristic warmth to his commissions, including Tilla Durieux (1914) and Mrs Colonna Roman (1913), which he continued to accept, albeit sometimes reluctantly. Gabrielle, who was in charge of watching over the aging painter, would prepare his palette for him, before slipping the brush between his bandaged hands.

The midday sun

From 1900 onward, sapped of his strength by arthritis, Renoir began to stay in the south of France more and more frequently because the strong sun aided his condition. The Renoirs had a house built in Cagnes-sur-Mer in 1903. Thereafter, depending on the season, the family would move between Essoye and the French Riviera, disregarding Paris. Having resolved his dilemma over the choice of open air (plein air) or workshop (atelier)—“I do open air in the workshop,” he said—the artist concentrated on a vision of an ideal world and a return to the roots of Mediterranean culture.

The Greeks were such an admirable race. Their existence was so happy that they imagined the Gods came down to Earth in order to find paradise and love. Yes, the Earth was the paradise of the Gods. That’s what I want to paint.

Renoir, obsessed by his art to the last, sought to transcend reality. In spite of his disability, he retained total control and mastery of his painting and sought “to render the flesh lifelike and exciting” even though he seemed to lose direction in his last canvasses with their images of excessively soft and passive curvaceousness. The larger his models became, the weaker he became. “One would almost suspect that the
body of a woman contains no bones,” Boucher affirmed. Renoir was criticized for this lasciviousness and his rejection of academic conventions. From another point of view, one could consider this the goal of an artist. By fleeing ugliness and sadness and by turning his back on the social misery prevalent at the end of the nineteenth century, he sought to portray a fantasy of timeless humanism his whole life. The works of his twilight years—landscapes of the Mediterranean or bathers—are marked by a touching optimism and whirlwind of color, a tribute to the French joie de vivre, a love of life.
Despite the horrors of the First World War, the loss of his wife, and the illness which weighed him down, the crippled painter continued to perfect his voluptuous art and to strive for a total fusion of form and color, isolated from the world in his workshop refuge in Cagnes. “Blessed painting. Even late in life, you are still creating illusions and occasionally giving joy,” he wrote to his friend, the painter Albert André. When he died on December 3, 1919, from a lung infection, the last words he uttered were about a small painting that he had just completed: a bouquet of anemones that Nanette, a maidservant, had gathered for him in the garden that very morning. “I am finally beginning to understand something,” he murmured as he passed away.

See Renoir chronology on page 332.

Renoir spent the last 11 years of his life at Cagnes-sur-Mer, where he painted The Vines at Cagnes. Oil on canvas (181/4213/4 in), 1906. Gift from Colonel and Mrs E.W. Garbisch to the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, USA. © Brooklyn Museum of Art/Bridgeman-Giraudon.