Just when I'm at a loss in writing about any painter that anyone has ever heard of before, I stumble upon the realisation that an artist everyone has heard of hasn't had his very own arty-fact article in the two and a half years I've been churning them out. Part of the problem is that Pierre-Auguste Renoir is a man often taken for granted in art circles. His work with Claude Monet in the nascent days of Impressionism during the late 1860s not only puts him in the shadow of the king of Impressionism also makes their work from that period nearly indistinguishable. Indeed, they often painted side by side and shared their little visual and painterly discoveries. They're like the Picasso and Braque of Impressionism. But Renoir, we might say, "lost the faith." In fundamentalist religious terms, we might call him a "backslider."
Born in 1841, the son of a Paris tailor, Renoir met Monet some twenty years later as they both found themselves misfits in the Ecole des Beaux-arts. Renoir, early on, had a taste for painting figures (a staple of the academy) but followed the much more forceful Monet into the fields and for ten years or so, concentrated mostly on landscapes. It was only after he began to tire of Impressionism that he moved back to the figure, often large groups of them, such as his 1876 Moulin de la Galette (the pancake mill) now in the Orsay in Paris. For a time, he was satisfied to apply Impressionist principles to his middle-class social scenes, but the figural draughtsman in him gradually began to reassert itself along with what might be termed something of a schoolboy fascination with the female nude. At the time they would have been considered voluptuous though by today's standards we'd call them "pleasingly plump." And as he progressed in his studies of their generous anatomical gifts, his Impressionist tendencies slipped away toward more literal, though no less colourful presentations.
Unlike Monet, who outlived him by seven years, Renoir's 20th century work is somewhat underwhelming. Monet, perhaps because of failing eyesight and arthritis, tended toward very large works as he grew older. Much of Renoir's late work would fit very comfortably over the couch. And while Monet can easily be pigeonholed, Renoir can't. Though the term, Impressionist, fits if we stretch it tighter and tighter over the course of Renoir's career, once he breaks its elastic bonds, it's hard to pass him off as a Post-Impressionist because one has the feeling, perhaps in spite of himself, that he was unable to shed his love of solid, academic, figural imagery. Though there's no record of his having proclaimed it, one has the feeling from both his painting and writings that he may have felt Monet had led him astray during his Impressionist years. Yet it is his "Monetish" landscapes that have afforded him the acceptance of collectors unable to assimilate his very un-Impressionist figural work later on. So Renoir presents an enigmatic quandary. Was he merely an academic hack whom Monet briefly led into the sunlight of Impressionism at its best; or a gifted painter of naked feminine beauty momentarily distracted by Impressionism? Or, are we doing him a disservice by trying to shoe horn him into either mould?