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Pierre-Auguste Renoir

French, 1841 - 1919

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Early Years

Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born on February 25, 1841 in Limoges, France--a medieval city famous for its porcelain. He was the sixth of seven children born to a tailor and a dressmaker. The Renoir family moved to Paris shortly thereafter, in 1844, though they would move twice more in the 1860s due to the demolitions caused by Baron Haussmann's rebuilding of the city.

Artistic from a young age, Renoir was apprenticed to a porcelain painter in 1854. In 1861 he enrolled as a student of the Swiss painter Charles Gleyre, and it was in Gleyre's studio that he befriended Frédéric Bazille, Alfred Sisley, and Claude Monet. In 1864 he exhibited at the Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, for the first time.


In the early 1870s, Renoir was called to serve in the Franco-Prussian War and joined a platoon in Libourne, southwest of Paris. After his stint in the military, he spent time in Argenteuil with his friend Monet, where they worked closely painting local scenery in and around the region.

Though celebrated for his portraits and nudes and today most often associated with figure painting, Renoir was also a lover of nature and became an accomplished painter of landscapes. Remarkable in their freshness and immediacy, these works of art reveal nature as a deep source of inspiration and demonstrate the artist's fascination with the effects of outdoor light.

He often painted en plein air (in the open air), and was initially drawn to the forest of Fontainebleau, about thirty-five miles from the center of Paris, where a group of painters known as the "Barbizon School" were challenging contemporary notions of artistic practice in their rendition of natural scenes. By following in their footsteps, he and his fellow Impressionists aligned themselves with modern notions of art. Today Renoir's landscapes remind us of many of the sites of leisure that we know well: the park, the garden, the forest, and the seacoast. For the painter, visits to such places offered opportunities for artistic experimentation and innovation.

Exhibiting and Traveling

In 1874, Renoir assisted in the organization of the first Impressionist exhibition, where he showed seven paintings. Two years later, he participated in the second Impressionist exhibition, submitting eighteen works.

Renoir did quite a bit of traveling in the early 1880s. He went to Algeria for the first time in 1881, and was promptly captivated by the North African landscape. He focused his attention on scenes of Arab life and the natural vegetation of the region around Algiers. Pleased with his work, Renoir's dealer Paul Durand-Ruel purchased five Algerian views upon his return.

In 1881-82, Renoir traveled to Italy, where he visited Venice, Padua, Florence, Rome, and Naples among other cities. At the request of Durand-Ruel, he painted many popular Italian sites and tourist destinations. Diagnosed with pneumonia, he made a second trip to Algeria later in 1882 upon his doctor's orders.

Family Life and New Directions

Renoir married Aline Charigot on April 14, 1890, five years after their first son, Pierre, was born. Their second son, Jean, was born in 1894. At this time Gabrielle Renard, a distant cousin of Mme Renoir, joined the household as Jean's nanny. She would stay with the family for the next ten years and pose for almost two hundred paintings. When the painter Berthe Morisot died just a few months after Jean's birth, Renoir also became the guardian of her daughter, Julie Manet. Claude ("Coco") Renoir, the youngest son, was born on August 4, 1901.

Despite painting and exhibiting his work throughout his life, it wasn't until Impressionism gained acceptance in the 1890s that Renoir was finally able, at age fifty, to win recognition and achieve commercial success. Now living mainly in Paris, he enjoyed the company of artists, collectors, and friends whom he used as models for domestic scenes and portraits. He had once explained to Berthe Morisot that he was working hard on "genre painting--the kind that sells," referring to the pictures of children reading, women wearing elaborate hats, or costumed musicians that were popular with collectors. His growing family also began to feature prominently in his work, as his young sons modeled for paintings and sculpture that chronicled the artist's rich family life.

Renoir's fame, however, was not confined to France--as early as 1904, American critics, collectors, and artists regarded him as the most important and influential of the Impressionists. Among the artists who were captivated by Renoir's soft palette, sensuous subject matter, and thin application of paint was Philadelphia-born William Glackens. Glackens sought out paintings by Renoir on trips to Paris, and in 1912 purchased the first Renoir (of an eventual 181) for Dr. Albert C. Barnes of Merion, Pennsylvania.

Renoir wished to paint with the simplicity and grandeur found in ancient art. Yet he also wanted to paint without traditional subject matter, "to be free of purpose, to avoid a literary approach and instead choose something that is familiar to everyone; or even better, no story at all." He realized this aim in studio compositions with female figures engaged in common domestic activities, such as brushing their hair, reading, or sewing. Renoir disliked using professional models and often relied on members of his household to sit for him while absorbed in tasks that permitted his full scrutiny. Renoir's serene women are painted against neutral backgrounds or discreet interiors that contribute to the meditative atmosphere of the paintings.

A Mediterranean Paradise

In the late 1890s, Renoir's bouts of rheumatoid arthritis became increasingly frequent and severe. To ease the pain he began spending time in the south of France, where he enjoyed the warmth and special light of the Midi region. He was particularly attracted to the town of Cagnes-sur-Mer, near Nice. He stayed there several times from 1898 onward and in 1907 purchased the nearby estate of Les Collettes, which included several farm buildings and stands of ancient olive trees. This setting stimulated Renoir to paint more plein-air landscapes, often depicting the tangle of walnut and olive trees on the property. His dense, saturated compositions and pure color schemes suggest a bountiful paradise.

A Concern with Decorative Beauty

For Renoir, painting was above all decorative. Its purpose, he said, was "to enliven the walls." His initial training as a porcelain painter and his dedication to an artisanal approach (he often referred to himself as a workman-painter) helped him to maintain this view of decoration in the face of what he felt was a contemporary excess of art theory. At the turn of the twentieth century he engaged in a number of projects for domestic interiors and turned his attention to designing ceramics, tapestries, and furnishings, affirming his belief that everyday objects should be beautiful.

A New Arcadia

Renoir's artistic exploration after 1900 increasingly turned away from the modern world in favor of a timeless Arcadia. He populated his paintings with idealized figures inspired by the Mediterranean region--sensual bathers, washerwomen, shepherds, and goddesses. In Renoir's eyes, the Mediterranean was an ancient land that was both the birthplace and the final refuge of a living, familiar, and enduring mythology. His efforts to revive antiquity through imagined scenes in which figures and landscapes comingle in a pantheistic celebration of nature are summed up by his assertion that "the earth was the paradise of the Gods . . . that is what I want to paint."

But although he was primarily a painter, Renoir was also interested in sculpture. He often visited the Musée du Louvre to admire ancient and Renaissance sculpture, and in his sixties, he tackled sculpture for the first time--modeling with his own hands the portrait of his youngest son, Claude, first as a medallion, then as a bust. These fresh and somewhat naive works were for his personal pleasure only; he did not exhibit or sell them.

The Large Nudes

By 1905, Renoir's female nudes had become monumental. Their figures tended to fill the entire canvas and the artist often abandoned anatomical accuracy in favor of a decorative line and soft curves. Renoir had reached a certain detachment from direct observation of individual models. Inspired by the example of the Old Masters, his large nudes embody a classical femininity; they are at once grand and archaic. His experiments with life-size sculpture during this period reveal an equal absorption with elemental themes and are a seemingly natural extension of the artist's interest in volume and form.

By about 1910 Renoir achieved independence from the demands of commissioned work and began to freely choose his subject matter. Despite his professed reluctance to paint portraits in this period, he produced a series of warm images of friends and family using two different approaches. In one he sought a natural effect by placing the sitter in his or her everyday environment. In the other he used historical conventions of portraiture to create complex, theatrical compositions with elaborate costumes and rich, shimmering colors. Whether depicting his subjects outdoors or indoors, in half-length or full-length, these paintings often paid homage to traditions of courtly portraiture and bestowed nobility on his sitters, who were frequently his children, dealers, or close associates. The audacity of framing and staging in these portraits speaks to the level of trust between painter and sitter.

Later Years and Renoir's Testament

"I am beginning to know how to paint. It has taken me over fifty years of work to achieve this result, which is still far from complete," Renoir declared in 1913 at the age of seventy-two. He was by then, of course, well-established in his career and considered by many to be the greatest living painter in France. This same year, five of his paintings were shown at the groundbreaking Armory Show in New York from February 17 to March 15.

In 1914, World War I began. Renoir's sons Pierre and Jean were both mobilized. The following year Aline died after visiting Jean, who was hospitalized with a serious leg injury.

As World War I came to an end, Renoir retained his strong conviction that painting was "made to beautify." Undoubtedly this belief was rooted in his personal experiences: only art made the loneliness and physical suffering of his final years bearable. Despite Aline's death and his two eldest sons having been injured in the war, however, the years from 1916 to 1919 were among the most productive and satisfying of Renoir's career as he reimagined favorite themes. Continuing the tradition of the nude and working with studio models, he returned to familiar subjects: women playing music, dancers, lounging odalisques, and Mediterranean landscapes. These explorations reached their apex in The Bathers, a painting Renoir considered a "culmination of his life's work." Henri Matisse, who watched Renoir paint this canvas in Cagnes-sur-Mer, called it "his masterpiece… one of the most beautiful pictures ever painted."

Pierre-Auguste Renoir died on December 3, 1919 at Les Collettes. He was later buried beside Aline at Essoyes. In 1922, his sons presented The Bathers to the French state as an enduring testament to their father's achievements.

Late Renoir, 2010

Renoir Landscapes, 2007

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