Renoir, My Father

The Luncheon of the Boating Party at Bougival, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1880-81
The Luncheon of the Boating Party at Bougival, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1880-81

I finished reading the biography of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, written by his son, Jean Renoir. Renoir is French, and I never really adjusted myself to all the French words and cities in the book. It bugs me when I have no idea how to pronounce something. Other than that, I enjoyed the book because it had so much to do with a little boy seeing his father through little boy eyes and not through art historian eyes. Renoir seems not-so-strange. He was ambitious. He had some idiosyncrasies. He looked strange because of his severe rheumatism. But he was a father, protective, anxious for his children, thinking about their well-being. By the end of the book, I was convinced that Jean’s mother, Renoir’s wife Aline, is the real superhero in the family. She devoted her life to keeping Renoir happy. She was his servant. They moved around frequently for his health and also for his art, and it was Mother who bought houses, arranged parties, brought in friends to cheer up Renoir. She worked hard. In the painting, she is the one looking at the dog. Renoir is the one gazing in her direction, sitting backward in his chair. Aline grew to be quite stout, which was apparently an honorable thing in that culture. Renoir stayed thin. He cared more for painting than eating.

At the end of his life, crippled and terrified that he wouldn’t be able to paint, Renoir did what exercises he could do: juggling, twirling a wooden block. He had to give up more and more of these things, but he managed to paint until the end. I liked the descriptions of his very clean palette, the dabs of paint he used in their correct order, his meticulousness. One of the author’s jobs was to help clean the brushes at the end of the day.

I also enjoyed making connections between Renoir and his contemporary artists. It’s fun to read about a meeting between such folks as Monet, Pissarro, Cezanne, Degas, and Morisot. Now I want to read more about Paul Cezanne because in this book he seems like such a crusty character!

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