A contemporary account of the work of Renoir by the French writer, poet and art critic Séverin Faust (1872-1945), published under his pseudonym Camille Mauclair in 1904.
The work of Auguste Renoir extends without interruption over a period of forty years. It appears to sum up the ideas and methods of Impressionist art so completely that, should it alone be saved from a general destruction, it would suffice to bear witness to this entire art movement. It has unfolded itself from 1865 to our days with a happy magnificence, and it allows us to distinguish several periods, in the technique at least, since the variety of its subjects is infinite. Like Manet, and like all truly great and powerful painters, M. Renoir has treated almost everything, nudes, portraits, subject pictures, seascapes and still-life, all with equal beauty.
His first manner shows him to be a very direct descendant of Boucher. His female nudes are altogether in eighteenth century taste and he uses the same technique as Boucher: fat and sleek paint of soft brilliancy, laid on with the palette knife, with precise strokes round the principal values; pink and ivory tints relieved by strong blues similar to those of enamels; the light distributed everywhere and almost excluding the opposition of the shadows; and, finally, vivacious attitudes and an effort towards decorative convention. Nevertheless, his Bathers, of which he has painted a large series, are in many ways thoroughly modern and personal. Renoir’s nude is neither that of Monet, nor of Degas, whose main concern was truth, the last-named even trying to define in the undressed being such psychologic observations as are generally looked for in the features of the clothed being. Nor is Renoir’s nude that of the academicians, that poetised nude arranged according to a pseudo-Greek ideal, which has nothing in common with contemporary women. What Renoir sees in the nude is less the line, than the brilliancy of the epidermis, the luminous, nacreous substance of the flesh: it is the “ideal clay”; and in this he shows the vision of a poet; he transfigures reality, but in a very different sense from that of the School. Renoir’s woman comes from a primitive dream-land; she is an artless, wild creature, blooming in perfumed scrub. He sets her in backgrounds of foliage or of blue, foam-fringed torrents. She is a luxuriant, firm, healthy and naïve woman with a powerful body, a small head, her eyes wide open, thoughtless, brilliant and ignorant, her lips blood-red and her nostrils dilated; she is a gentle being, like the women of Tahiti, born in a tropical clime where vice is as unknown as shame, and where entire ingenuousness is a guarantee against all indecency. One cannot but be astonished at this mixture of “Japanism,” savagism and eighteenth century taste, which constitutes inimitably the nude of Renoir.
M. Renoir’s second manner is more directly related to the Impressionist methods: it is that of his landscapes, his flowers and his portraits. Here one can feel his relationship with Manet and with Claude Monet. These pictures are hatchings of colours accumulated to render less the objects than their transparency across the atmosphere. The portraits are frankly presented and broadly executed. The artist occupies himself in the first place with getting correct values and an exact suggestion of depth. He understands the illogicality of a false perfection which is as interested in a trinket as in an eye, and he knows how to proportion the interest of the picture which should guide the beholder’s look to the essential point, though every part should be correctly executed. He knows how to interpret nature in a certain sense; how to stop in time; how to suggest by leaving a part apparently unfinished; how to indicate, behind a figure, the sea or some landscape with just a few broad touches which suffice to suggest it without usurping the principal part. It is now, that Renoir paints his greatest works, the Déjeûner des Canotiers, the Bal au Moulin de la Galette, the Box, the Terrace, the First Step, the Sleeping Woman with a Cat, and his most beautiful landscapes; but his nature is too capricious to be satisfied with a single technique. There are some landscapes that are reminiscent of Corot or of Anton Mauve; the Woman with the broken neck is related to Manet; the portrait of Sisley invents pointillism fifteen years before the pointillists; La Pensée, this masterpiece, evokes Hoppner. But in everything reappears the invincible French instinct: the Jeune Fille au panier is a Greuze painted by an Impressionist; the delightful Jeune Fille à la promenade is connected with Fragonard; the Box, a perfect marvel of elegance and knowledge, condenses the whole worldliness of 1875. The portrait of Jeanne Samary is an evocation of the most beautiful portraits of the eighteenth century, a poem of white satin and golden hair.
Renoir’s realism bears in spite of all, the imprint of the lyric spirit and of sweetness. It has neither the nervous veracity of Manet, nor the bitterness of Degas, who both love their epoch and find it interesting without idealising it and who have the vision of psychologist novelists. Before everything else he is a painter. What he sees in the Bal au Moulin de la Galette, are not the stigmata of vice and impudence, the ridiculous and the sad sides of the doubtful types of this low resort. He sees the gaiety of Sundays, the flashes of the sun, the oddity of a crowd carried away by the rhythm of the valses, the laughter, the clinking of glasses, the vibrating and hot atmosphere; and he applies to this spectacle of joyous vulgarity his gifts as a sumptuous colourist, the arabesque of the lines, the gracefulness of his bathers, and the happy eurythmy of his soul. The straw hats are changed into gold, the blue jackets are sapphires, and out of a still exact realism is born a poem of light. The Déjeûner des Canotiers is a subject which has been painted a hundred times, either for the purpose of studying popular types, or of painting white table-cloths amidst sunny foliage. Yet Renoir is the only painter who has raised this small subject to the proportions and the style of a large canvas, through the pictorial charm and the masterly richness of the arrangement. The Box, conceived in a low harmony, in a golden twilight, is a work worthy of Reynolds. The pale and attentive face of the lady makes one think of the great English master’s best works; the necklace, the flesh, the flounce of lace and the hands are marvels of skill and of taste, which the greatest modern virtuosos, Sargent and Besnard, have not surpassed, and, as far as the man in the background is concerned, his white waistcoat, his dress-coat, his gloved hand would suffice to secure the fame of a painter. The Sleeping Woman, the First Step, the Terrace, and the decorative Dance panels reveal Renoir as an intimiste and as an admirable painter of children. His strange colouring and his gifts of grasping nature and of ingenuity—strangers to all decadent complexity—have allowed him to rank among the best of those who have expressed childhood in its true aspect, without overloading it with over-precocious thoughts. Finally, Renoir is a painter of flowers of dazzling variety and exquisite splendour. They supply him with inexhaustible pretexts for suave and subtle harmonies.
His third manner has surprised and deceived certain admirers of his. It seems to mix his two first techniques, combining the painting with the palette knife and the painting in touches of divided tones. He searches for certain accords and contrasts almost analogous to the musical dissonances. He realises incredible “false impressions.” He seems to take as themes oriental carpets: he abandons realism and style and conceives symphonies. He pleases himself in assembling those tones which one is generally afraid of using: Turkish pink, lemon, crushed strawberry and viridian. Sometimes he amuses himself with amassing faded colours which would be disheartening with others, but out of which he can extract a harmony. Sometimes he plays with the crudest colours. One feels disturbed, charmed, disconcerted, as one would before an Indian shawl, a barbaric piece of pottery or a Persian miniature, and one refrains from forcing into the limits of a definition this exceptional virtuoso whose passionate love of colour overcomes every difficulty. It is in this most recent part of his evolution, that Renoir appears the most capricious and the most poetical of all the painters of his generation. The flowers find themselves treated in various techniques according to their own character: the gladioles and roses in pasty paint, the poor flowers of the field are defined by a cross-hatching of little touches. Influenced by the purple shadow of the large flower-decked hats, the heads of young girls are painted on coarse canvas, sketched in broad strokes, with the hair in one colour only. Some little study appears like wool, some other has the air of agate, or is marbled and veined according to his inexplicable whim. We have here an incessant confusion of methods, a complete emancipation of the virtuoso who listens only to his fancy. Now and then the harmonies are false and the drawing incorrect, but these weaknesses do at least no harm to the values, the character and the general movement of the work, which are rather accentuated by them.
Surely, it would be false to exclude ideologist painting which has produced wonders, and not less iniquitous to reproach Impressionism with not having taken any interest in it! One has to avoid the kind of criticism which consists in reproaching one movement with not having had the qualities of the others whilst maintaining its own, and we have abandoned the idea of Beauty divided into a certain number of clauses and programmes, towards the sum total of which the efforts of the eclectic candidates are directed. M. Renoir is probably the most representative figure of a movement where he seems to have united all the qualities of his friends. To criticise him means to criticise Impressionism itself. Having spent half of its strength in proving to its adversaries that they were wrong, and the other half in inventing technical methods, it is not surprising to find that Impressionism has been wanting in intellectual depth and has left to its successors the care of realising works of great thought. But it has brought us a sunny smile, a breath of pure air. It is so fascinating, that one cannot but love its very mistakes which make it more human and more accessible. Renoir is the most lyrical, the most musical, the most subtle of the masters of this art. Some of his landscapes are as beautiful as those of Claude Monet. His nudes are as masterly in painting as Manet’s, and more supple. Not having attained the scientific drawing which one finds in Degas’s, they have a grace and a brilliancy which Degas’s nudes have never known. If his rare portraits of men are inferior to those of his rivals, his women’s portraits have a frequently superior distinction. His great modern compositions are equal to the most beautiful works by Manet and Degas. His inequalities are also more striking than theirs. Being a fantastic, nervous improvisator he is more exposed to radical mistakes. But he is a profoundly sincere and conscientious artist.
The race speaks in him. It is inexplicable that he should not have met with startling success, since he is voluptuous, bright, happy and learned without heaviness. One has to attribute his relative isolation to the violence of the controversies, and particularly to the dignity of a poet gently disdainful of public opinion and paying attention solely to painting, his great and only love. Manet has been a fighter whose works have created scandal. Renoir has neither shown, nor hidden himself: he has painted according to his dream, spreading his works, without mixing up his name or his personality with the tumult that raged around his friends. And now, for that very reason, his work appears fresher and younger, more primitive and candid, more intoxicated with flowers, flesh and sunlight.