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Renoir's home in Cagnes-sur-Mer, in the South of France, was a source of inspiration (The Farm at Les Collettes, 1914). (Bequest of Charlotte Gina Abrams, in memory of her husband, Lucien Abrams, 1961 / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Renoir's Controversial Second Act

Late in life, the French impressionist's career took an unexpected turn. A new exhibition showcases his radical move toward tradition

Jean and Claude Renoir were dragooned into service as models from infancy. For an 1895 painting, Gabrielle Renard—the family’s housekeeper and a frequent model—tried to entertain 1-year-old Jean as the rambunctious child played with toy animals. “Painting Gabrielle and Jean was not exactly a sinecure,” the artist quipped. Claude—who sat for no fewer than 90 works—had to be bribed with promises of an electric train set and a box of oil paints before he would wear a hated pair of tights for The Clown, his father’s salute to Jean-Antoine Watteau’s early 18th-century masterpiece Pierrot. (Years later, Picasso painted his son Paulo as Pierrot, although that work is not in the current exhibition.)

Renoir’s later portraits make little attempt to analyze the sitter’s personality. What most interested him was technique—specifically that of Rubens, whose skill with pigments he had admired. “Look at Rubens in Munich,” he told the art critic Walter Pach. “There is magnificent color, of an extraordinary richness, even though the paint is very thin.”

Renoir was also becoming less interested in representing reality. “How difficult it is to find exactly the point where a painting must stop being an imitation of nature,” he said late in his life to the painter Albert André, whom he served as a mentor. Renoir’s 1910 portrait of Madame Josse Bernheim-Jeune and her son Henry presents an expressionless mother holding her equally expressionless child. When she appealed to Auguste Rodin to persuade Renoir to make her arm look thinner, the sculptor instead advised the painter not to alter a thing. “It’s the best arm” you’ve ever done, Rodin told him. He left it alone.

Renoir, a sociable character with a sharp sense of humor, ran a lively household with his wife in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris. Claude Monet and the poets Stéphane Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud were among the dinner guests.

Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 1897, Renoir followed his doctor’s recommendation to spend time in the warmer climate of the South of France. He bought Les Collettes farm in Cagnes-sur-Mer in 1907. Renoir’s disease would slowly cripple his hands and, ultimately, his legs, but the “threat of complete paralysis only spurred him on to renewed activity,” Jean Renoir recalled. “Even as his body was going into decline,” Matisse wrote, “his soul seemed to become stronger and to express itself with a more radiant facility.”

In 1912, when Renoir was in a wheelchair, friends enlisted a specialist from Vienna to help him walk again. After a month or so on a strengthening diet, he felt robust enough to try a few steps. The doctor lifted him to a standing position and the artist, with an enormous exertion of will, managed to wobble unsteadily around his easel. “I give up,” he said. “It takes all my willpower, and I would have none left for painting. If I have to choose between walking and painting, I’d much rather paint.”

And so he did. In 1913, he announced he was approaching the goal he had set for himself after his trip to Italy 32 years before. “I’m starting to know how to paint,” the 72-year-old artist declared. “It has taken me over 50 years’ labor to get this far, and it’s not finished yet.” An extraordinary three-minute silent film clip in the exhibition captures him at work in 1915. Renoir grips his brush nearly upright in his clenched, bandaged fist and jabs at the canvas. He leans back, cocks an eye to peer at the painting, then attacks it again before putting the brush down on his palette.

It could not have been an easy time—his two elder sons had been wounded early in World War I, and his wife died that June. While millions were perishing in the trenches, in Cagnes, Renoir fashioned an Arcadia, taking refuge in timeless subjects. “His nudes and his roses declared to the men of this century, already deep in their task of destruction, the stability of the eternal balance of nature,” Jean Renoir recalled.

Auguste Renoir worked until the day he died, December 3, 1919. At the time, his studios contained more than 700 paintings (his lifetime total was around 4,000). To paint one of his final efforts, The Bathers, from 1918-19, he had had the canvas placed on vertical rollers that allowed him to stay seated while working in stages. “It’s a disturbing painting,” Patry says. The two fleshy nymphs in the foreground are “very beautiful and graceful,” she says, while the background landscape “resembles an artificial tapestry.”

Matisse anointed it as Renoir’s masterpiece, “one of the most beautiful pictures ever painted.” On one of his visits to Cagnes, he had asked his friend: Why torture yourself?

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About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

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