Impressionism: Reading Woman circa 1900
Always the Same Draperies and the Same Virgins!
After such a profession of faith as this, how is it possible to contend that Renoir was heedless or disdainful of all elevated thought? With Cézanne and Van Gogh he knew full well what our modern world lacks, — a sense of the Divine.
To this matter he returns in the preface to Cennino Cennini’s Livre de l’Art, where he explains that the general value of ancient art resides in «that something which has disappeared — religious feeling, the most fruitful source of their inspiration (i. e., — Cennini’s contemporaries). It is that which gives all their works that character of nobility and candour, at one and the same time, and in which we find so much charm…
To sum up everything,» he continues, «there then existed between men and the environment in which they moved a harmony born of a common belief… After this one can understand the cause of the general progress in art and of its unity wherever a lofty religious conception holds sway… So much so that one may almost say that, when these fundamental principles are lacking, Art cannot exist».
Do not these words justify us in saying that the crisis through which Renoir passed was not merely a technical one, but spiritual, philosophical, anti-rationalist, — a crisis of the soul? His desire was «to be touched by grace», so that his mind might receive the god which would animate it. But Renoir did not lose himself on those heights. Raphael’s Venus, — she «who comes to supplicate Jupiter», made the same impression upon him as «a good fat gossip on her way back to the kitchen», and he was quite of Stendhal’s opinion, that Raphael’s women are commonplace and heavy.
However, when in Florence, La Vierge à la Chaise caused him deep emotion. «I went to see this picture intending to have a good laugh,» he related to M. Vollard. «But behold! I found myself in front of the most free, most solid, most marvellously simple and living piece of painting it is possible to imagine, — a picture with arms and legs of real flesh, and how touching an expression of maternal tenderness! »
Renoir became somewhat rapidly tired with the painting of the Renaissance. « Always the same draperies and the same Virgins! » And he proceeded to Naples for a rest. The art of Pompeii and that of the Egyptians delighted him. He found there Corot’s « simplicity of work » and even his silver-grey colour. Face to face with that art he came to understand form and volume; there was no atmosphere, no subtle play of light, no expression of matter; form was wholly created by the relationship between the tones, whilst volume was suggested by modelling and passing touches.
He also took a lesson in pictorial technique which a chance discovery soon developed. For a time it was the technique of fresco-painting which above all occupied his thoughts, and he would no longer work save with red and yellow ochre, green and black terra. On returning to France he painted, after that fashion, at the house of M. Bérard, at Wargemont, two decorations inspired by hunting scenes. Then, one day, in 1883, he chanced to discover in a book-box on the quays a copy of the Traité de la Peinture de Cennino Cennini, mis en lumière pour la première fois avec des notes par le Chev. J. Tamboni. Traduit par V. M., Paris et Lille, 1858. The translator was one of Ingres’ pupils — Victor Mottez.
Thirty years later, at the request of this painter’s son, Renoir consented to write a preface to a new edition of the book. When in Rome, Renoir had become greatly interested in the technique of fresco-painting in oils. Now, Cennino Cennini’s book revealed to him the methods of the painters of the XVth century, — methods which Mottez had put into practice at Saint-Sulpice, Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, and Saint-Séverin. So we see Renoir launched in the direction of pictorial science, and, a passionate beginner in the painting of frescoes, he disdained oils, ignoring, as he himself related later, « the elementary truth that oil-painting must be done with oil».
Like Delacroix and Cézanne, he became anxious as regards the preservation of his materials and sought to prevent their turning black. Doubtless he foresaw that future deficiency in the case of impressionism. The hatred which suddenly took possession of him against impressionism was largely due to its ephemeral character. « The palette of the painters of to-day, » he said, « has remained the same as that of the painters of Pompeii, via Poussin, Corot, and Cézanne, — I mean to say that it has not become enriched… Happy ancients! » he exclaimed on another occasion, — « since they knew the use of only ochres and browns. »