Thursday, February 25

An everyday eternity without the boasting ...

In today's post I take warm note of two anniversaries. The first is the birthday of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, born in Limoges, France, in 1841 (pictured here in the portrait done in 1867 by his friend and fellow Impressionist pioneer Frederic Bazille).

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".
Other quotes:

— "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).

And the second anniversary is much closer to home,  as close to home as one can ever get. Fifty-four years ago today, February 25, 1956, the creators and loving caretakers of my everyday eternity were married, my parents, Isabel and Albert, shown in this 1955 photo in Venezuela. Happy anniversary, mom and dad.


  1. What a wonderful post! Your description of that book made me really want to pick it up--thank you for your take on it. And this final photo of your parents is amazing--what a handsome couple they are! I love the way you worded your lovely tribute to them. Congratulations to them, and happiest of anniversaries to a beautiful couple.

  2. Lorenzo:

    If I could live in another era or time that would be in France -- 1800's I love the impressionists paintings 'a study in light' --
    Another favorite time is Pompeii -- well not during the eruption though. I have a small shard from Pompeii, part of a goblet ---I can wrap my fingers around the stem and it is a perfect fit and image who this once belong to.. I am a romantic historian,,

    What a wonderful tribute to a beautiful looking couple your parents...
    enjoyed your comment on my post-- thank you for taking the time to write one. your brothers wedding must have been quite beautiful.

  3. Holy cow, dude... don't take this the wrong way, but your mother is HOT!!!

  4. Lovely post - congrats to your folks, mine are 35 years married today - popular time of year for nuptials...

  5. Wonderful book review, LLL. I must add it to my ever growing list of must reads. And WOW, your parents look like movie stars! What an extraordinary couple. Who do you favor most, your mother or your father?

  6. That is such a great book. I'm hooked on reading about those Impressionists. But the Renoir is a definite Desert Island Book.

  7. Thanks everyone for your comments and for sending congratulations to my parents. They read the blog (haven't yet been able to get them to sign on as followers, though) so your best anniversary wishes have been seen by them directly.

    Jeff: my mother was so "offended" by your remark that she is seriously considering signing up to follow your blog instead of mine ... ;)

    Joanny: I can imagine how much you treasure the shard from Pompeii. I like that notion of romantic historian.

    A Brush With Color: Yes, definitely check out the book, it's a beautiful read.

    Niamh: certainly pass on my congratulations to your folks as well.

    Willow: who do I favor most? Well, a little blue elephant should never tell... but let's say I have some of both. As a child the resemblance with my mom and her family was more pronounced; now the mix tilts more to my father's side.

    Clever Pup: What other books would you recommend on the Impressionists? I'm hooked, too.

  8. Congrats to your parents! They are stunning couple.

    I read your Theme Thursday post. Beautiful. I am now following; the name of your blog is what caused me to drop in.

  9. Wonderful post and great book review - I really, really need to start reading!! Congratulations to your parents :)

  10. an intriguing post...perhaps i will check the book out...happy anniversary to your parents. theat is something special when towo have been together so long...

  11. A beautiful tribute to Renoir as well as your own lovely parents. (Now I get the reason for the blogs en espanol.)

    I was introduced to Renoir at age thirteen. I had a very astute teacher who I need to track down and thank (that is, if he's still alive).

  12. Hello, She Writes. I am glad you stopped by at the blog and signed up. I have since visited yours and am really enjoying it.

  13. Hi, Eternally Distracted: the many distractions that keep us from ready are indeed as constant as they are eternal, but we have to resist...

  14. Hi, Brian. Yes, if you do check out the book, let me know what you think. You are right about there being something special when people are together so long. Imagine how many beautiful tender things you will have written about your beloved T. when you have been married 54 years!

  15. Terresa, a teacher that introduces you to Renoir at 13? That is a treasure. Hope you find him ...

  16. THanks for this lovely post - Renoir's remarks about the artists/craftsmen I especially appreciate - those lost souls who made the quietly beautiful mosaics at Pompeii. Thanks and congrats to your parents.

  17. Lorenzo,
    There are just so many treasures here.
    That photo strikes me through with beauty.
    Things have been rather crazy for me but I will catch up on all of these posts in a week or so when I can get back online .

    I'm so glad to have "met" you.

  18. Hi, Suzanne. According to the book, Renoir disliked the term artist and preferred to be considered a craftsman. He and other impressionists were laughed at for wearing blue smocks, but, of course, such sniping did not bother them over much.

  19. Deb. Thanks and I am glad to have gotten to know you and your Talk at the Table blog (such a nice inviting name).

  20. liked how you described your parents as
    "the creators and loving caretakers of my everyday eternity"

    to many, many more years together! later this month my parents will celebrate their 59th anniversary! it's all so wonderful!

  21. Thanks, Kimy. All the best to your folks. 59 years!

  22. I'm sorry, Lorenzo, I scrolled down through the post first and saw your mother, and the rest became a blur. And such inspired writing about Renoir. I just wanted to get back and look at that face again. To grow up with such beauty, oh my.

    I'm so busy with work and life, and your "old" posts are saving me when I need a break each day.


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