Renoir’s Portraits-Saying Yes to Life.

Essay by Fiona Louise
“In Renoir’s figure painting, portraiture deserves a place unto itself. For no other artist has looked so deeply into his sitter’s soul, nor captured its essence with such economy”

(quoted in C. Bailey, Renoir’s Portraits: Impressions of an Age, New Haven and London, 1997, p. 1).


Pierre Auguste Renoir is without question one of the most prolific and lauded artists in the history of art, with approximately 6000 painting completed through the 60 years of his artistic practice. Born on February 25, 1841 in Limoges, France; the fourth of four children, Renoir grew up in Paris with his mother Marguerite who was a seamstress and his father Leonard who was a tailor. Renoir was a creative child and at 13 was offered a position as an apprentice porcelain painter.

Over the period of his life Renoir became an acclaimed portrait artists and throughout his artistic career these portraits served three purposes; firstly and most fundamentally, as a mechanism early in his career to gain money and notoriety. Secondly, his penchant for portraiture became a mechanism to show his experimentation as an artist and reflected the changes in his artistic style. Thirdly and most importantly, Renoir’s portraits were a vehicle to show his own ideals of life, they are full of vitality, hope and happiness, showing deep empathy for the human condition that raises our own humanity.

The appeal of Renoir’s pieces extends beyond the subject matter; he creates for the viewer through  empathy and spontaneity a somehow gentler and better world. Through his paintings, Renoir sought to recreate the world not as it was, but as he felt it should be. While painting a likeness as is at the heart of portraiture  and requires a relationship between the sitter and the painter , Renoir through his changing fortunes and changing technique he was able to create a transcendent likeness of his subjects and give them a depth of character, a persona ,a soul.

The Beginnings 1861-1874

In 1861, when Renoir was 20 years old he joined the Paris studio of the history painter Charles Gleyre, after completing study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the traditional training ground for serious artists. This step marked a shift in his burgeoning career as he advanced from a vocational to a professional painter. During this time he encountered and befriended young artists Frederic Bazille, Alfred Sisley, and Claude Monet.

Beginning in 1862, Renoir and his fellow students worked together in  Fontainebleau, southeast of Paris and Renoir was encouraged by his sister to seek portrait commissions as his most certain form of income ( Bailey ,1995), which he did but only in his most immediate circles.

His first commissioned portrait was of Little Miss Romaine La caux in 1864, the nine-year-old daughter of an earthenware manufacturer. Renoir surely captures not only the girl’s likeness but an essence of her as well.

Little Miss Romain La caux (1864)

In this work Renoir shows his artistic influences – the sitter’s hair imitates Rubens, the crisply defined face and lacy bodice derive from Ingres; white impasto suggests Courbet; the soft floral background,Corot (Robinson).Renoir fills his subject with a sense of quiet dignity and luminosity of features.

Renoir’s portraits  consistently imbued the sitters with a confidence and innocence irrespective of their place in society, be they offspring of merchants or high society. Miss La caux reflects a sense of poise and grace beyond her years. A few years after the La caux piece,  Renoir completed  his first double portrait-a depiction of his brother and sister in law. These portraits when placed side by side were surely painted in the same room,they follow the conventions of marriage portraits, that of wife facing husband and the balance of signatures on the two portraits together(Baily, 1995). They show affluence and education with the ages of the sitters telling us that these are marriage portraits long after the wedding itself. Renoir created a sense of warmth and kindness through the benevolent faces , soft relaxed pose and demeanor ,with warm colours and fabrics encompassing the pair.

Pierre Henri Renoir (1870)


Blanche Marie Blanc Mme Pierre Henri Renoir ( 1870)
Blanche Marie Blanc Mme Pierre Henri Renoir ( 1870)







Renoir and Impressionism 1874-1877

Up until 1870, Renoir often shared a studio with Frederic Bazille, a space that was also used by Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley.  The artists would commonly seek sitters who were free and inexpensive: Renoir’s father; Arthur Sisley’s father William;  Bazille,  and other artisans and their children.

Over the next few years, Renoir painted portraits that show influences of artists such as Edouard Manet and Eugene Delacroix. Importantly, he experimented with the techniques of painting en plein air, very much loved by his contemporaries Monet and Sisley and very much at the heart of Impressionism, producing works with a lighter palette and more delicate brushwork.

Renoir became increasingly linked with the Impressionists like Monet,Sisley, Degas and Manet, both personally and artistically. By the summer of 1873, he was a regular at Claude Monet’s home where he painted portraits of Monet’s wife, Camille, and their family. It was at this time that Renoir became free to paint outside themes appropriate for Salon standards,the annual Parisian art exhibition, and it is at this point that we see Renoir’s portraits move into the clearly impressionist style of light colours, delicate and loose brush strokes and contrasting light and shadow.

Indeed, Renoir had hit his stride. His works retained the consistently positive themes of happy joyful scenes, and perhaps this is why Impressionism is so synonymous with Renoir-the technical style of loose, light delicate brushwork ,light and shadow and light colour work perfectly with his portrait subject matter.What better subject matter for happy and light content than women and children.

Madame Monet and her son (1874)
Madame Monet and her son (1874)

In his series of portraits of Monet’s family, Renoir extends his earlier style of loose brushwork and pushes the style further, showing a move to a  complete lack of fixed lines, and  use of shadowing to create perspective.  as in  Femmes cuelliant des Fluers (1874)

Femme cuelliant des Fleurs, Renoir (1874)
Femme cuelliant des Fleurs, Renoir (1874)


Moving to Mannerism 1876- 1883

By the late 1870’s Renoir, Monet and Bazille had grown disgruntled with the Salon and the difficulty in achieving sustained success. They decided to create their own exhibitions which heralded the beginning of the formal movement of Impressionism.

Although the Impressionists held eight exhibitions between 1874 and 1886, it was 1877 that saw Renoir’s final submission. By then he was receiving portrait commissions from an ever-widening circle of commissioners.

Another turning point in Renoir’s life came through his friendship with the wife of one of Paris’ influential publishers of the day,Margueritte Charpentier wife of Georges Charpentier.  Mme Charpentier  held fashionable weekly gatherings of her own attended by leading talents in the thriving literary and artistic scene of Paris.

In 1877 Renoir he became their painter-in-residence, with individual portraits of Marguerite and the children, and a group portrait of Marguerite with daughter Georgette.   Renoir had one only one significant success at the Salon, competition, in 1878 with his portrait of Mme Charpentier and Her Children (1878), which received strong reviews and  acclaim, “by common consent one of the finest, if not the finest work noting its expression of the animalism of childhood” (Fry 1907,) This success of his portrait painting was enough to rocket Renoir into a financial career as an artist and continue to reinforce his positive perspectives into his artwork, which in turn reinforced a return to a more linear style for Renoir.

Mme Charpenties and Her Children (1878)
Mme Charpenties and Her Children (1878)

Renoir was  committed to the focusing on painting the human figure, particularly that of females and particularly portraits. He painted a variety of people with his fluttery brushwork softening features and creating a sense of beauty and softness. “Underneath the empathetic touches of one of the sublime exponents of plein-air painting lurks an artist with an overwhelming belief in the merits of beauty, harmony and order, and a non concomitant faith in decoration “ ( Bonventura, 2010)

Renoir continued to paint members of the petit bourgeoisie, creating from the subject’s a vision of refinement, elegance, and dignity.

Mlle Irene Cahen d anvers, (1880)
Mlle Irene Cahen d Anvers, (1880)

Another example of such portrait is of Irene, the eldest daughter of Louis Cahen d’Anvers; a wealthy banker of the time. “Irene is shown in profile, hands clasped on her lap, and the painting is dominated by her profusion of light chestnut hair, which falls over her arms and shoulders like a cape”(Adler, 1995, p330).The portrait shows less of a focus on the loose, airy impressionist style, and a greater focus on capturing a sense of the sitter, even if the view of the sitter was overly enhanced through Renoir’s application of artifice.

A further change of direction in Renoir’s art is evident in this Cahen portrait. The piece was executed at a point in Renoir’s career when he hoped that success as a portraitist would mean success at the Salon through encouragement by the Charpentier’s.  Only a year later “his uncertainty about the likelihood of achieving his aims through portraiture and meant that painting portraits no longer appeared to Renoir to represent a route to recognition” (Adler, 1995).
The Dry Period 1883- 1890
Progressively ,Renoir became more removed from the ideals and technical representations of Impressionism: “Around 1883, a kind of break took place in my work. I’d gone as far as I could with Impressionism, and I was coming to the conclusion that I knew neither how to paint nor how to draw. In short I’d reached a deadlock” (Renoir, cited in Bonaventura, P 2010)
From this time, Renoir began to doubt his skill as an artist and questions the works he has produced. As he moved away from Impressionism, the contours of his characters became more precise. He drew the forms with more rigour, the colours were made colder.The transition would be progressive since Renoir was in perpetual search for an absolute pictorial art. At of the end of 1881, he writes to Durand-Ruel “I am still in the disease of research. I am not content and I erase, I still erase….”.

Quite quickly , Renoir’s works began to be criticised  and as he was no longer part of any art movement, he began losing favour in the eyes of the art world and the general public.

The Pearly Period 1890-1897
Under a shadow of criticism ,Renoir  continued to paint and draw, moving towards a focus in his portraits in delicacy of form .lightness and sensuality.Giving up linear style, Renoir adopted a more flexible and consistent construction of his artworks, with more fluidity and transparency. It is what he called the “pearly” period .

At this time Renoir was approaching fifty: “He indeed realized, at that time, that his early paintings cracked and that the tone deteriorated. He thus supervised his mixtures, which he reduced, like Rubens, at a minimum, and used a thin and single layer “(Adler, 1995 p33).

Renoir sought a way to expand his artistic expression, and instead of embracing Impressionism for a second time, he rather turned back and embraced the Old Masters. “Unfashionably, Renoir was hunting for a modern means of expression through re interpretation of the Old Masters” (Bonaventura 2012) Renoir’s works began to show subtle signs of losing the joy ,light and colour he was so famous for. What came in its place was a subtler thing, a sense of calmness and peace, without a loss of dignity on behalf of the sitter. One example of such is his portrait Berthe Morisot and her daughter Julie Manet (1894)

Berther Morisot and her daughter Julie Manet (1894)
Berther Morisot and her daughter Julie Manet (1894)

In this portrait, Renoir positions the sitter in the traditional profile position as both a homage back to Old Masters and also perhaps to spare the grieving the sitter the despair of having to look directly at the viewer. Her daughter by comparison, has a caring and protective arm around her mother. Technically, the painting is a clear deviation from Impressionism. Fine lines, facial details, clearly constructed folds of fabric contrast to the looseness of Impressionism. Undoubtedly Renoir’s use of a muted tonal palette, reflect a softness and gentleness to both sitters-as if Renoir was trying to cushion some of the pain for Morisot.

“The daughter here may readily be seen as just another of Renoir’s pretty girls in hats of the 1890’s ; but the image or Morisot herself, widowed and prematurely aged…withdrawn from us by being viewed in stark profile , is the most eloquent, yet delicate ,evocation of the mortality of a loved friend “ (House 1997)

Similarly , Two girls and a piano (1892) is a portrait of great detail and delicacy. Renoir had been invited by the French government to create a painting for the Musee du Luxembourg. With a flailing public perception , Renoir was acutely aware of the scrutiny to which this work would suffer. Renoir gave incredible focus to this work, developing and refining the piece over five canvases . A sense of softness and gentleness pervades this piece, a return to Renoir’s positive view of the world but in the subtler forms post impressionism.

Two Young Girls at the Piano (1892)
Two Young Girls at the Piano (1892)

Renoir’s final self-portrait, created in 1910, indeed his final painting, shows too this unfailing positive perspective. With Renoir’s eyesight  failing and body wracked with rheumatism, Renoir’s brushes needed to be strapped to his hands to complete his work.

Self Portrait (1910)
Self Portrait (1910)

Yet still we see his lightness of colours ,gentleness of expression and dignity of sitter ,the same qualities that he applied so readily in his depictions of others through his career-a better life than clearly he was experiencing. Moreover, critics claim this these last pieces of Renoir’s work show shifts that are in fact the beginnings of a much more fundamental shift –that of the modernist movement to abstraction .These works “ prefigure the rectilinear purity of Piet Mondrian and Theo Van Doesburg and the hermetic intensity of Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock …abstraction begins with Renoir” (Bonaventure ,2010 ).


By the end of the Pearly period , Renoir had regained his former acclaim. He had imposed his personal reflections of the joy and vivacity of life into his artworks and was recognised as achieving such by his peers and the community at large. He had moved through a series of transformational moments and reached a place of pictorial maturity. A short while before he died in Cagnes-sur-Mer in 1919, he said the following to his nurse about painting: “I think I am beginning to understand something about it”. Renoir’s art was ultimately a simple reflection of the joy he found in life and his portraits were one mechanism to show this joy. His was a happy artist “ delighting in sensuous beauty of the world- women,children,sociability, sunlight nature .Sane and healthy, it maintained a happy balance between the animal in man and the civilized human being. It was a large and generous art, affirmative, saying yes life” . (Goodrich, 1937 )

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Websites Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art