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Landscape Themes

Field of Banana Trees Near Algiers
Field of Banana Trees Near Algiers, 1881
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Oil on canvas
20 1/4 x 25 in.
Musee d'Orsay
Renoir's landscape paintings document the changing face of nature in the late nineteenth century and the new social activities that such transformations afforded. His style of painting was innovative, and the landscapes themselves represented new points of interest for city-dwellers; reminding them about the wonders of nature outside the ever-growing metropolis and the introduction of natural settings into the urban fabric of the city.


A Clearing in the Woods
A Clearing in the Woods, 1865
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Oil on canvas
22.5 x 32.5 in.
Detroit Institute of Arts
At the start of his career, Renoir used landscape painting as a way to escape the confines of the studio and to practice his art in the open air (en plein air). While sketching out-of-doors had long been a part of academic training for artists, one group of independents, the Barbizon artists, took their studies further and made landscape painting their central preoccupation. Named for a village on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau, this group, which included Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet, came to prominence in the mid-nineteenth century. Following in the footsteps of these pioneers, Renoir and many of his friends created their landscapes while outdoors at Fontainebleau and other towns surrounding Paris.

Figures in the Landscape

La Promenade
La Promenade, 1870
Pierre Auguste Renoir
Oil on canvas
81.3 x 64.8 cm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Today many people think of landscapes as pictures without people, yet most landscape paintings made before Renoir's time relied on figures to provide context. Renoir was steeped in the history of French painting and was particularly interested in the eighteenth century, when artists such as Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and François Boucher often depicted the outdoors as a site of aristocratic leisure or as the background to a mythological or historical story. Therefore, it is not surprising to find among Renoir's landscapes scenes of people relaxing outside. Whether the image features a view of courtship as in The Promenade, at left, or merely a pair on a terrace overlooking the river as in By the Water, also on view in this exhibition, Renoir uses landscape to introduce ideas of nature and its social associations.

"Pure Landscape"

Springtime (in Chatou)
Springtime (in Chatou), about 1875
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Oil on canvas
59 x 74 cm.
Private Collection

Many contemporary viewers assume that in order to be a landscape painting, a picture must be free of figurative elements. But this idea is one that results from the choices made by Renoir's contemporaries. First coined by the artist Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) in 1874, the term "pure landscape" was used to describe a landscape painting in which figures played a minimal role in the composition or were absent altogether. Pure landscape painting came to prominence in the nineteenth century against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution, when the meaning and importance of nature were changing significantly. Many of Renoir's landscape scenes from the 1870s could be characterized as pure with their focus on pictorial elements, such as the effect of light and color, over and above any anecdotal interest or story behind the painting.

The Impressionist Landscape

The Skiff
The Skiff (La Yole), 1875
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Oil on canvas
The National Gallery, London
The Impressionists were an informal group of French artists connected by the independent exhibitions that they took part in between 1874 and 1886. They were also linked by their painting styles and shared artistic interests. In Impressionist landscapes, bright colors and broken brushstrokes (taches, "spots" in French) predominate, a technique that can be traced to Renoir's and Claude Monet's experiments while painting at the bathing resort of La Grenouillère in 1869. In the summers of 1873 and 1874, however, the two artists also developed a consistent style for rendering the effects of light on the suburban world outside Paris, the destination of many day-trippers. One perceives in these landscapes by Renoir the same forceful expressiveness of color and stroke that characterizes the best of Monet's landscapes. While their pictorial innovations remain the very definition of Impressionism, it is clear that Renoir continued to expand on this style.


Claude Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil
Claude Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil, 1873
Pierre Auguste Renoir
Oil on canvas
46 x 60 cm
Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut
Bequest of Anne Parrish Titzell
In Renoir's lifetime, many of the first public gardens were built in Paris and in cities around the world, and many former royal gardens were renovated as they were made public. Such spaces provided fresh air and beautiful promenades for everyone. In addition, private gardening became a means for people of all backgrounds to plant and cultivate their own landscapes for aesthetic pleasure. While many gardeners continued to grow food, these new gardens were also private spaces where creativity could be put to the task of devising an appealing natural environment. The expansion of the pleasure garden to the middle class is one of the developments of the late nineteenth century that has only increased in importance over time. Painting gardens doubles one's joy by allowing the interpretation of their colors and forms on canvas, and Renoir's pictures suggest a human interest in both shaping nature and enjoying its bounty.


Le Pont Neuf
Le Pont Neuf, 1872
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Oil on canvas
29.63 x 37 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington
While landscape generally suggests the world of nature, cityscapes have long been a part of the landscape tradition. Paris was Renoir's home from age four, and he made a series of paintings of the city in the 1870s that reflect his passion for the vitality of urban life and the changes that occurred in the previous two decades. Under Emperor Napoléon III, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809–1891) modernized the city's medieval jumble of streets and squares to the grand boulevards and sweeping vistas we know today. In this process, much was lost and Renoir's family was displaced twice to make way for new improvements. The city he depicted, however, is a light-filled metropolis full of visual interest, which he captured with rapid brushwork. These pictures employ innovative Impressionist techniques to portray the frenetic pace of modern life and the considerable leisure of strollers on newly widened avenues. Here are young trees and expanses of space, but what catches our attention are the moving figures that animate the cityscape.

By the Sea

The Wave
The Wave, 1879
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Oil on canvas
25 x 39 in.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Mr. And Mrs. Potter Palmer Collection
In 1879, Renoir was invited by the Bérards, his friends and patrons, to Wargemont, their summer home near the Normandy coast. While there, Renoir painted portraits of various family members but he also made frequent outings to the surrounding countryside and, in particular, the seacoast. He created many landscapes that summer and when he returned to the stately retreat the following three years. In his depictions of the seacoast and the sea, made in Normandy and later on the island of Guernsey, Renoir continually reworked the subject, which led to surprising results, especially in his experimental canvases devoted to the effect of crashing waves. Among these paintings, no two are completely similar. Clearly, he was more interested in discovering and capturing specific visual experiences than developing a coherent landscape style.

Traveler Vistas and Tourist Views

Gondola, Venice
Gondola, Venice, 1881
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Oil on canvas
12 1/2 x 26 in.
Philip and Janice Levin Foundation
At the age of 40, Renoir finally had the motivation and means to travel abroad. On his first trip, he went to Algeria, a longtime colony of France. During the month he spent there in the spring of 1881, he made some of the most remarkable landscapes of his career, developing innovative pictorial techniques to depict the North African locales. Renoir notably avoided the oft-represented sites that had by then been established as the area's central picturesque motifs. In Italy in the following year, however, he sought out famous sites, such as the Piazza San Marco in Venice, representing them in a vivid and coloristic style that would enrage critics when the works were exhibited in the Impressionist exhibition of 1882.
Learn More About Renoir's Gondola, Venice >>


The Farm at Les Collettes
The Farm at Les Collettes, c. 1915
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Oil on canvas
Musée Renoir, Ville de Cagnes-sur-Mer, France
Renoir's late paintings demonstrate his persistent appreciation of landscape, even at the end of his life. By the time he painted The Farm at Les Collettes, seen at left, he suffered from such acute arthritis that he could neither walk nor hold his brushes, which had to be tied to the backs of his hands by assistants. Yet he continued to paint in the open air on his property. In these works, he evoked the timeless ideals of the natural world and the human presence within it.


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