On 25 February 1841, the French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born. Renoir is now celebrated the world over for his development of the Impressionist style. Impressionists often painted everyday scenes of modern life, and they used small brushstrokes and emphasised colour over line in their quest to capture the effects of light and movement, believing that this method of painting could create a more accurate rendition of how we perceive the world.
Even if you already knew that Renoir was an Impressionist painter, you may not know some of these other fascinating facts about his life and work…
• As a child, Renoir displayed more talent for singing than for painting and drawing. His family’s financial difficulties meant that he had to give up his singing lessons and take up an apprenticeship in a porcelain factory. It wasn’t until some years later that he became an art student.
• As a young man, Renoir was in the habit of painting on the banks of the River Seine in Paris. In 1871, whilst the short-lived revolutionary government known as the Paris Commune held power, he was suspected of being a spy and was almost thrown into the river – until fortunately his true identity was recognised.
• The term ‘Impressionism’ was originally meant as a criticism; it was used for the first time by the art critic Louis Leroy in his satirical review of an 1872 Impressionist exhibition. The name stuck, but lost its negative connotations as the work of Renoir and his friends became more widely known and appreciated.
• Renoir met the German composer Richard Wagner in 1882, and painted Wagner’s portrait in just thirty-five minutes.
• Possibly Renoir’s most famous painting, Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876, shown above) depicts a busy Sunday afternoon at a windmill and dance café in Montmartre, where Parisians would gather to eat, drink and socialise. It was recently valued at over £116,000,000. The real thing can be viewed at the Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
• In his later years, Renoir continued to paint, despite suffering from painful arthritis which made it difficult for him to hold a paintbrush. When asked why he kept painting, he replied, ‘The pain passes, but the beauty remains.’
Impressionism is sometimes assumed to be rather ‘chocolate-boxy’, in other words sentimental, idealistic, even somewhat bland. Nevertheless the Impressionist painters were radicals: they rebelled against artistic tradition, embraced modernity, and strove to create truthful depictions of modern life. In so doing, they revolutionised our understanding of the way we perceive the world, and changed the course of art history forever. Take a closer look at the paintings of Renoir and other Impressionists: they might surprise you.
For more information about Renoir, take a look at the website of the National Gallery, London. Also, why not find out more about another great master of Impressionism, and friend of Renoir, Claude Monet?