I just recently finished reading Renoir, My Father, a wonderful recollection and re-creation of the painter by his son, the filmmaker and playwright Jean Renoir (originally published by Little, Brown in 1962; current edition by the New York Review of Books, 2001). The very first line of the book reads: "In April 1915 a Bavarian sharpshooter did me the favor of putting a bullet through my leg". The wound sent him home from combat in World War I and allowed him to spend time while convalescing with his aged and ailing father, at that time emotionally crushed by the death of his wife and severely hobbled by the rheumatoid arthritis that tortured him in his later years (the description of Renoir bobbing back and forth from his wheelchair before the canvas, working with paintbrushes strapped to the wrists below his terribly deformed hands, is wincingly and wondrously wrought).
The book is largely based on the long conversations that ensued between the two house and wheelchair-bound men. Jean was 21 at the time, Auguste was 74 and would die four years later. The son took no notes and made no written record of those talks and did not even begin writing the recollection until the 1950s, nearly 40 years later, when he was getting on in years himself.
So Renoir, My Father is at the same time much less and much more than a biography: less because it is admittedly non-rigorous, incomplete and unreliable in its treatment of the facts, but much more because Jean Renoir has filled that factual void with a very moving nostalgic reminiscence of his father, an impressionistic evocation of the man. Eventually the two personalities seem to merge in what Robert L. Herbert's introduction calls "an effervescent blend of nostalgia for an earlier era".
Renoir: Monet painting in his garden at Argenteuil, 1873
One of the main characteristics of Renoir that comes through in the book is the rejection and utter scorn he felt for any and all notion of epic storytelling, preaching, teaching, exemplifying, moralizing and dramatizing in his art. His lone mission was to practice the "cult of nature", to "ensnare the light, and throw it directly onto the canvas" (in Monet's phrase), "to plunge enthusiastically into this pool of impressions of nature, which constitute the 'credo' of the new painting". The then dominant Romantic School
"still felt the need of a nature that was dramatic. Renoir and his friends were in the process of realizing that the world, even in its most banal aspects, is a thing of wonder and delight. 'Give me an apple tree in a suburban garden. I haven't the slightest need of Niagara Falls'."A trip to Italy, especially southern Italy, played a pivotal role in the development of Auguste's artistic philosophy:
"I was tired of the skill of the Michelangelos and the Berninis: too many draped figures, too many folds, too many muscles! I like painting best when it looks eternal without boasting about it: an everyday eternity, revealed on the street corner; a servant-girl pausing a moment as she scours a saucepan, and becoming a Juno on Olympus ...
... The Italians don't deserve any credit for great painting. They just have to look around them. Italian streets are crowded with pagan Gods and Biblical characters. Every woman nursing a child is a Raphael Madonna."
He talked again about this last impression, dwelling on the curve of a brown breast and the chubby hand that clutched it. The Pompeian frescoes struck him for many other reasons: "They didn't bother about theories. There was no searching for volumes, and yet the volumes are there. And they could get such rich effects with so little!" He never ceased to marvel at the color range of those ancient artists: earth colors, vegetable dyes, seeming rather dull when used by themselves, but brilliant by contrast. "And you feel they were not striving to bring forth a masterpiece. A tradesman or a courtesan wanted a house decorated. The painter honestly tied to put a little gaiety on the wall—and that was all. No genius; no soul-searching".
— "But the ideal of simplicity is almost impossible to achieve."
— "The reason for this decadence is that the eye has lost the habit of seeing."
According to Jean Renoir, "the idea that the intellect was superior to the senses was not an article of faith" with his father. "It is the eye of the sensualist that I wish to open" is how the painter stated his mission. He was deeply distrustful of imagination: "We have to have a devilish amount of vanity to believe that what comes out of our brain is more valuable than what we see around us. Imagination doesn't take us very far, whereas the world is so immense".
Like Bazille's portrait of Renoir above, Renoir's The Swing (La Balançoire), 1876, shown here, is from the Musée d'Orsay and currently part of the Impressionist exhibition at the Fundación Mapfre in Madrid).