The First Signs of Renoir’s Trend Towards Impressionism

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The First Signs of Renoir's Trend Towards Impressionism

Renoir’s meeting with Diaz goes down as one of the turning points in Renoir’s career, to which must be added the revelation of Courbet and Manet. Everything points to an influence of Delacroix at this time, too, but his chief interest seems to have gone to Courbet first, then to Manet, who had just come into the limelight with an exhibition of modern painting at Martinet’s, and again with the famous Salon des Refusés held in 1863. Manet’s pictures, which had scandalized the public, made a deep impression both on the young group at Gleyre’s studio and on several of their fellow students at the Académie Suisse, Pissarro, Cézanne and Guillaumin. Now, too, Renoir and Cézanne met and became friends.

Turned down at the 1864 Salon, but accepted in 1865 with his Portrait of Madame W.S. and Summer Evening, Renoir sent in to the 1866 Salon a canvas whose pigment was slapped on with the palette knife after the manner of Courbet–Young Man walking his Dogs in the Forest of Fontainebleau (National Gallery of Art, Washington)–but it was refused. Painted in much the same manner, his Diana was refused at the 1867 Salon. But Renoir soon realized that this technique was not for him, and, painting his Lise, saw it accepted at the 1868 Salon.

In the contrast of the dark belt against the white dress, we see the influence of Manet–an influence on Renoir that never went deep, however–as we see it again in the Portrait of Sisley and his Wife, with the red and yellow striped dress and the grey trousers. But though our first glance at the subject and composition brings Manet to mind, very different from him indeed are the wellrounded modeling of forms and the juxtaposed passages of light and shadow. Closer to Courbet is the Bather with a Dog, accepted at the 1870 Salon along with Woman of Algiers (National Gallery, Washington), an odalisque with reminders of Delacroix not only in the theme, but also in the color-scheme.

It is a matter of considerable interest to see how different the landscapes of the early paintings are from the figures. Their treatment–as we see it in the Park of Saint-Cloud (1866) or the Champs-Elysées (1867)–is much more akin to Corot than to Courbet. In them, in fact, we find the first signs of Renoir’s trend towards Impressionism, already discernible, moreover, in the Park of Saint-Cloud and the ice-skating scenes of 1868 and 1869, and patent in the views of La Grenouillère, which date from the same years.

Of the three versions of the latter, those of the National Museum, Stockholm–painted from the same angle as Monet La Grenouillère in the Metropolitan Museum, New York–and the Reinhart Collection, Winterthur, are a prelude to the boating scenes at Argenteuil after 1870, by virtue of the landscape reflected in the rippling water in distinctly separate brushstrokes. Suggested by the subject itself, this style it was, very probably, that led to the coining of a term–the famous “comma” brushstroke–that summed up impressionist technique.

Quite different, strangely enough, are the Pont des Arts (1868), a very neat, clean-cut piece of work, and Lighters on the Seine, a canvas in which, on close inspection, we can detect a skillful medley of Corot and Jongkind, two of the forerunners of Impressionism. But the subdued light and the cloudy sky à la Jongkind have nothing of the nimble, fluttering touch of an impressionist picture, while the very freely schematized treatment à la Corot bears no hint of the division of tones.

The work of his predecessors had much to teach Renoir, but none of them can be said to have affected him decisively. Neither Courbet nor Manet left a lasting impress on his temperament, so different from theirs at bottom. As Renoir put it later on, he and his friends had looked to Manet “as the standard-bearer of the group, but only because his work was the first to get down to that simplicity we were all out to master.” And so it seems in retrospect today. As against the sleek, insipid productions of the official painters, the work first of Courbet, then of Manet, must have seemed to these young men like an inspiring hope of salvation, with its directness, its disdain of any artifice, as fresh and clean as official art was bogged down with superannuated dogma. Even so, Manet had only been a stepping-stone; each of them was to go much farther along the path his own temperament dictated.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 now scattered the group momentarily. Manet, Degas and Bazille volunteered or were called up, while Monet and Pissarro took refuge in England, as did Sisley, too, who was a British subject. Disregarding his calling-up orders, Cézanne slipped away to L’Estaque on the sly. Renoir, apparently shrugging his shoulders and leaving things to fate, politely turned down General Douay’s offer of protection and found himself shipped off to Bordeaux, comfortably remote from the front. There he painted portraits of his company commander, Darras, and his wife.

After the capitulation, he spent two idyllic months of family life in a neighboring chateau, where he gave painting lessons to his friends’ pretty daughter, was attended like a king, and spent his time horseback riding. His friends were reluctant to let him go for fear he would come to harm in the fighting that had broken out again. But he finally got away, and was soon dividing his time between Paris and his mother’s house at Louveciennes, though in the hectic days of the Commune he ran considerable risk in doing so. In later years he liked to reminisce about his experiences in these eventful days.

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