Renoir: An Intimate Biography by Barbara Ehrlich White - review by Tom Stammers

Tom Stammers

Mixed Impressions

Renoir: An Intimate Biography


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Pierre-Auguste Renoir lived long enough to see himself canonised. In 1911, he was the first Impressionist artist to be accorded a full monograph study, penned by Julius Meier-Graefe. In 1915 he was filmed at home in Cagnes-sur-Mer by Sacha Guitry for the series The Great Ones Among Us, in which the 74-year-old artist appears heroically applying paint to canvas, in defiance of his rheumatoid arthritis. In 1919, shortly before his death, the frail Renoir was carried on a chair to see his portrait of Madame Charpentier installed in the Louvre, an honour never before bestowed on a living artist. The evocative, doting 1958 biography written by his son, film director Jean Renoir, further burnished his reputation for kindness, wisdom and valour in adversity. Sixty years on, Barbara Ehrlich White now seeks to go beyond the legend by offering an intimate picture of the beloved Impressionist’s life, drawing on a vastly extended corpus of more than three thousand letters. In contrast to the outward simplicity and modesty noted by contemporaries, Renoir emerges from her study as a man who was painfully ambivalent in his attitude towards modern France and his own commercial success.

In his first canvas of daily life, The Inn of Mother Anthony, Marlotte from 1866, Renoir depicted a group of his friends around a table, chatting over the newspapers, a caricature of Henri Murger looming on the wall behind them. Just as Murger had immortalised la vie bohème, so Renoir would celebrate the hedonism of urban leisure, painting theatres, parks, circuses, luncheon parties and dance halls with a ripe and sometimes giddy sensuality. But his commitment to bohemian ideals appears more cosmetic than real. Renoir was surprisingly prudent in the management of his personal affairs. When his model Lise Tréhot fell pregnant with his child, Renoir took care to conceal the fact from his friend Frédéric Bazille, lest it damage the supply of credit extended by him. The two children born from this union were given up for adoption; only the daughter, Jeanne, survived infancy, and her existence was sedulously hidden from all Renoir’s friends and relatives for the next forty-nine years (and only rediscovered by scholars in 2002). The correspondence Renoir conducted with his secret daughter displays his decency but also his controlling streak, and she was unaccountably given only meagre provision in his will.

Renoir’s relationship with his future wife, Aline, was also initially shielded from friends to maintain appearances and he only retrospectively legitimised their son Pierre by marrying her in 1890. Although Aline inspired some of Renoir’s most joyful tributes to voluptuous femininity, her life was inescapably lonely and sad. Renoir came to resent her attachment to bourgeois luxury and country living, just as he first teased and then chided her over her appearance and weight. Bloated and suffering from diabetes, she was disliked and mocked by his friends (‘fat and peasant-like’, Julie Manet wrote in her diary) and was prone to bouts of jealousy over her husband’s closeness to other women, including the family’s maid, Gabrielle. Aline’s death in 1915 was, in emotional terms, a ‘non-event’ for Renoir, who barely mentioned it in his letters and was largely preoccupied with trying to minimise the inheritance tax due on their estate. His decision to be buried apart from her was a final snub and a public sign of their estrangement.

Denounced as an artistic revolutionary, Renoir in fact craved official recognition. He exhibited continuously at the Salon between 1863 and 1890 and tactically stayed aloof from his fellow Impressionists if he thought it would harm his prospects. In 1882 he turned down an offer to exhibit with the Société des Artistes Indépendants on the grounds that, as he informed his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, ‘if I exhibit there, it will cause [the value] of my canvases to drop by 50%’. His unwillingness to appear alongside subversive painters like Gauguin foreshadowed his later hostility to Camille Pissarro, who was both an ‘anarchist’ and a ‘Jew’, and his distrust of young admirers such as Picasso. In 1900, he had few qualms about accepting the title of Chevalier in the Légion d’honneur, even if he sheepishly wrote to Monet telling him that it was his capricious temperament that explained this selling out. Renoir possessed sharp business acumen and his letters testify to the close interest he took in how his works circulated and were displayed. Beginning in the late 1880s, Renoir’s financial situation was transformed thanks to the popularity of Impressionism in America, a love affair that would prove enduring; Philadelphia collector Albert Barnes went on to acquire no fewer than 181 Renoir canvases. But the painter himself expressed disgust at the speculation rampant in the art market, ranting to his painting student Jeanne Baudot in 1903 that ‘high, ridiculous prices have crazed everyone and everyone is selling’.

White explains Renoir’s unease with modernity by referring to his artisanal background. Born in Limoges in 1841, the son of a tailor, Renoir received an upbringing that engrained in him a nervous insecurity about status and an urge to conform. His humble beginnings informed his sentimentalised view of the working classes, which he considered to have been coarsened not just by mechanisation but also by socialism. In 1897 he railed against the automobile as an ‘idiotic thing’ and a symbol of ‘decadence’, insisting that ‘there is no need to go so fast’; he denounced the invention of the railway as a ‘crazy idea’ which had resulted in ‘too much coming and going’; in 1904, he confessed to the journalist C L de Moncade (with some justice), ‘I am the worst old fogey there is among the painters.’ This suspicion of modern technology went hand in hand with a suspicion of broader social changes. Extremely needy for male friendship, Renoir took a dim view of women’s intellectual abilities and described feminist authors such as George Sand and Juliette Adam as ‘calves with five hooves’. At the height of the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s, Renoir threw in his lot with the conservative Right and slandered French Jews as rootless cowards.

Mercifully, as White makes clear, Renoir’s behaviour did not match up with his more bigoted pronouncements. His dismissal of female artists sits oddly alongside his warmth for and professional admiration of Berthe Morisot. His anti-Semitic jibes need to be balanced against his enduring partnerships with the Jewish dealer Alexandre Bernheim and a friendship circle that included Charles Ephrussi, Catulle Mendès and Thadée Natanson. Nostalgia for a lost community of faith among French workers was articulated by a man who hardly ever set foot in a church. While White is correct to add nuance to any hasty or anachronistic condemnation of Renoir’s views, the arguments she mounts in his defence are sometimes tenuous and naive. Rather than try to explain away such inconsistencies, we should see them as essential to understanding the man and his wilfully escapist body of work.

In general, this biography is centred on Renoir’s life and is only fitfully interested in analysing or contextualising his art. Nonetheless, White does draw out the way in which his training as a decorator in the Lévy firm, copying rococo designs onto porcelain, continued to shadow Renoir throughout his career. He retained a fascination with applying paint onto multiple media – including gravy boats, window blinds, screens, even Maclean cement – and sought to erase the distinction between fine and decorative art. In 1884, he sounded out the editors of La Vie Moderne about a feature showcasing millinery designs; decades later, crippled with arthritis, he began modelling portraits of his youngest son, Claude (Coco), in soft wax. The model Venuses, medallions and busts he produced in collaboration with the sculptor Richard Guino in his final years are an intriguing and touching testament to his relish for tactile artistry.

The example of sculpture spurred Renoir to rethink his artistic methods. As with his fellow Impressionists, the early 1880s represented a crossroads in Renoir’s painting as he tried to endow his evanescent and spontaneous brushwork with the solidity and grandeur he observed both in the art of the past – the frescoes of Herculaneum and of Raphael – and in the works of contemporary exemplars, especially the muralist Puvis de Chavannes and Renoir’s misunderstood, visionary friend Cézanne. Subjecting his art to an arduous process of refinement, Renoir sought a hybrid style that placed sharply contoured human figures – notably bathers – against a looser, dynamic background. ‘I am still suffering from the illness of experimenting,’ he wrote from Naples in 1882. ‘I am unhappy and I erase, I erase again.’ These frank insights into his laborious methods and gnawing self-doubts contrast with the familiar clichés about Renoir as the painter of joie de vivre. Renoir was remarkably prolific, but he painted not from self-confidence so much as from necessity, a need to affirm his vitality despite his chronic infirmities. At the start of the First World War, he told a friend, the artist Albert André, that he painted continuously simply ‘to kill this damn time … I keep rotting here like an old moulding cheese.’

Scholars of Renoir will be indebted to White for assembling so many new letters that shed fresh light on the texture of Renoir’s family life, friendships and daily routines. Those looking for a deeper understanding of Renoir’s work will be a bit disappointed, however. Central preoccupations in Renoir’s paintings – such as his debt to the French 18th century, his orientalism and trips to Algeria, and his relationship with music, especially Wagner – are invoked but little explored. There is scant engagement with recent or critical art history; the descriptive writing can feel pedestrian and the tone veers to the defensive, even the adulatory. Yet White’s diligent work does reveal the ‘manipulative personality’ of her subject more candidly than ever before, laying bare both his contradictions and the release he found from them in the illusions of painting.

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