Renoir as a Portrait Painter
The last Man died, as it were, with the XVIIIth century; the Individual strove to subsist in Romanticism; and Impressionism appeared to be seized with a desire to give him his quietus, -preceded and aided by Caricature, supported clandestinely by the dissolving action of such pitiless observers as Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, who set forth man’s defects and vices. Man, in Manet’s eyes, was but an excuse for showing his wonderful skill as a painter.
In the case of Monet and Pissarro and Sisley, he was of the value of a tree-trunk, or a boat on the Seine; he played his little inglorious part as a mere touch of colour in the diffuse whole of a landscape. Nature became void of humanity, — and vegetation took on an air of ennui at being without a master and without a goal. Renoir was the only real impressionist ( Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec being of that school only through a spirit of comradeship) who kept in contact with humanity.
More than that: he interested himself in various types of humanity. The humanity of the people and that of the middle-classes. Le Cabaret de Mère Anthony, the scenes depicted at La Grenouillère, Le Moulin de la Galette, Mme Charpentier et ses Enfants, the behaviour of men in town and country, — all these, from a certain point of view, are human documents; and if these pictures, after some catastrophe, were the only remaining vestiges of society, they would suffice to reconstitute an epoch. They were of that period when Renoir was in the midst of and participating in its social life, and very naturally he came to examine his fellow-citizens very closely.
Throughout his life — and in response to his attitude of the moment — he depicted them under different aspects. He regarded the human being in his relation to nature; he examined him in his relation to his fellow-men: first of all the alliance between man and woman, then man as he is among other men, again when he is with his family, or in a restricted, intimate circle. And he was to end by seeing him merely as a creature in the midst of creation as a whole.
One may say that there is not a work by Renoir which shows indifference towards man. Whereas Pissarro, for example, effaces all trace of man, even to the very fruit of his work, Renoir, on the other hand, always reminds us of his presence: the landscape is a framework for his pleasure and his revels, an accompaniment to the beauty of his form, or an opportunity for him to bury himself amidst nature’s charms.
The principal personage in Renoir’s pictures is never the Seine, or the grass; it is the boating-man standing on the bridge facing the river and the sails, or swiftly sculling on the water; we see the dancer, or the spectator; we see friend talking with friend. During the whole of Renoir’s impressionist period we find this feeling of man’s domination over nature or woman, but at the same time we note that of love: the woman and the child who make their radiant progress amidst the field of weeds and flowers are in unison with the glory of the humble plants of the meadows.