Sympathy for Renoir

Anyone who reads this blog regularly can attest to my distaste for Renoir – particularly Renoir’s later works. (Case in point: I used the word “hideous” to describe a Renoir painting in this post and in a comment for this post.)

I’m not the only person who dislikes Renoir. In fact, people have critiqued his work for decades. Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt wrote in 1913 that Renoir was painting horrific pictures “of enormously fat red women with very small heads.”1 Even Renoir once admitted, “I had gone as far as I could with Impressionism, and I realized I could neither paint nor draw.”2 I couldn’t agree more.

Although Renoir’s later paintings have gotten a bad reputation, a new traveling exhibition called “Renoir in the 20th Century” strives to place the painter in a more positive light. You can read more about this exhibition (and further critiques of Renoir’s style) in a recent Smithsonian article.

Personally, I have no desire to see this show. My opinion of Renoir is pretty much solidified at this point, and I wouldn’t want to waste my time. However, I must admit that the Smithsonian article has changed my perception of Renoir. I didn’t realize that the artist suffered from extreme rheumatoid arthritis in his later life. Due to this disease, the artist painted while under constant pain. He later suffered from paralysis in his right shoulder, which forced the artist to paint with his left hand (see image above).

So, although I don’t find any aesthetic appeal in Renoir’s later works, I do have much more sympathy for the artist. I guess in a way, I can now relate to Renoir on a very small level. Any discomfort that I feel when seeing his art was also painfully experienced by Renoir when his paintings were created.

UPDATE: I just came across this video which shows footage of Renoir working in his later life. You can really get the sense of his physical limitations and suffering in this clip.

1 Richard Covington, “Renoir Rebels Again” in Smithsonian 40, no. 11 (January 2010): 67.

2 Ibid.

  • The Clever Pup says:

    I liked his earlier work, although I could never see why he needed a model because the woman all had the same face.

    I read that his paintbrushes were tied to his wrists in his last years.

    Also, at the reference library in Toronto is a Paris Directory for 1912. I was tickled to pieces to find Renoir's home phone number.

  • e says:

    Wow. What an interesting article.

    When I think of Renoir, I always think of that painting he did of a dog. I have no idea what the name of it is. I've never found it particularly good, but it seems to me that a lot of artists are extremely overrated — the whole concept that repeats over and over again — the few get all the attention while many "true artists" are passed over.

    But, I have to agree with you about having sympathy for him. That article is almost heart breaking. The quote in there that said, "If I have to choose between walking and painting, I’d much rather paint" was pretty darn moving. To care about something so much that you'd rather do that than walk is rather beautiful.

  • Hels says:

    I didn't dislike Renoir's paintings, and until later in his career, I didn't dislike his lifestyle either. But with the Dreyfus Affair in 1894, Renoir turned on his old and close friend, Pissarro, with ugly vengence.

    Read what The Artistic Debate cited: "The rabid anti-Dreyfusard sentiment was not isolated to mobs on the street. When asked to sign the pro-Dreyfusard Manifesto of the Intellectuals (which Monet, Paul Signac, and Lucien Pissarro signed a few weeks within the publication of Zola’s letter), Renoir refused point blank. Renoir’s anti-Semitic diatribes included denouncing the Pissarro family as part of that Jewish race of tenacious cosmopolitans and draft-dodgers. To Renoir, The Jews come to France to make money, but the moment a fight is on, they hide behind the first tree. There are so many in the army because the Jew likes to parade around in fancy uniforms. Every country chases them out, there is a reason for that, and we must not allow them to occupy such a position in France (qtd. Nord 104). Degas was no better."

  • M says:

    Thanks for your comments, everyone. The Clever Pup, you bring up an interesting point about the paintbrushes tied to his hands. I have also read that in several places, but I read a conflicting opinion here, which argues that bandages were tied around Renoir's hands to absorb sweat, not to hold the paintbrushes in place. I'm inclined to believe this argument, although I haven't done extensive enough research on the subject to form a solid opinion.

    (I also think it's interesting that both The Clever Pup and e commented at about the exact same time, and both comments imply that Renoir wasn't very original in his subject matter/use of models, etc. Funny!)

    Hels, thank you for that quote regarding the Dreyfus Affair. I completely agree with you – Renoir was horrible to Pissarro. (There actually are a few other things that I don't like about Renoir's life and mindset, e.g. he believed that the act of painting was fraught with sexual allusions (gross!), but that's a rant for another day.) Anyhow, I just started to read "The Private Lives of the Impressionists" by Sue Roe, and I'm curious to see how she treats the Dreyfus Affair. It's such a sad story.

  • jacob says:

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  • heidenkind says:

    I have The Private Lives of the Impressionists at home and still haven't read it–I it's good!

    I, um, actually like Renoir. 🙂 Yeah, he couldn't draw for crap and he was a sexist ass, but then which of the Impressionists DIDN'T have those problems? I think there's something charming about most of his work. It's completely guileless–what you see is what you get.

  • M says:

    Hey, heidenkind, I'm glad that you spoke up and defended Renoir. I want people to feel like they can express their opinions on my blog, and I'm glad that you did. And I think that several people like Renoir for reasons similar to yours, (i.e. the guileless quality). You're not alone in your opinion! 🙂

    Claudia, thanks for your comment. I'm glad you're enjoying my posts. Your blog looks like it is quite fun, too. I'll be sure to check back for future posts.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.