Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) La baigneuse assise (Executed in 1883)

Belle époque

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 41, Winter 2014

Page 14

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919) Coco (esquisse) (Painted circa 1906-1907)

Belle époque

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 41, Winter 2014

Page 14

Renoir's sensuous nude represents his vision of female beauty – which bears a strong resemblance to his wife, Aline Charigot. Rosie Millard describes how the artist painted his life and lovers

If you lined up a hundred people and asked them what their favorite period in art history might be, chances are that the Impressionist era would feature high on the list. And if pressed to make a top five of the major artists, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) would probably be on it, not least because while the others focused on movement, light and shade, Renoir applied himself to the depiction of women. Beautiful women, with voluptuous curves, flowing hair, pouting lips and deep, soulful eyes. A Renoir woman is as unmistakable as one by Botticelli, but unlike Botticelli, who painted idealized goddesses draped in flowers or standing on seashells, Renoir painted the real women who filled his life.

Like his fellow Impressionists, he was inspired by the life on the streets that surrounded him: the balls, the walks in the rain, the glittering nights at the theater, the boating parties. He painted his friends, his relations and, of course, his lovers; all living life to the full as they danced, drank, sang, played the piano, or simply lounged around. It's not certain who the subject of this shimmering nude is, drawn in pastels, signed and dated 1883, but La baigneuse assise – to be sold in February's Impressionist and Modern Sale – was surely a woman intimately known by Renoir. Fascinatingly, this picture exists in a different space from the social whirl usually favored by the artist; it is an intimate, quietly erotic nude, the subject unadorned and solitary.

The pastel drawing was first owned by merchant and dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, an important man in Renoir's life. In the same year, he also commissioned the two famous Danse pieces, which are now both in the Musée d'Orsay. With her dark hair, snub nose and bright features, the female subject of Danse à la campagne (1883) is no mystery; she is Aline Charigot, Renoir's girlfriend and future wife. Almost life-size, she dances in the fresh air in a brightly printed country dress, yellow gloves and a red hat, whirling and laughing in the arms of Paul Lhote, a friend of the painter. Its companion piece, the coolly sophisticated Danse à la ville, features the artist Suzanne Valadon, moving elegantly in a long ruched satin dress, with an unknown partner.

Renoir met Aline in a cheese shop on the Rue St-Georges, near Pigalle. She was 20, a young dressmaker who had been brought up in the countryside. He was by then nearly 40, not well off, but a leading light in the audacious, daring group of artists known as the Impressionists. Aline seems to have represented his female ideal – indeed, their son, the famous film maker Jean Renoir, stated that his father began painting his mother long before they met.

Perhaps Renoir was indeed simply waiting for a woman who looked exactly like Aline to walk into his life. He started painting her around 1879, depicting her on the bank of the Seine, and in 1880-1881, she stars in his famous canvas Le déjeuner des canotiers (The Boating Party). Aline is the young woman at the bottom left of the giant painting – with her turned up nose and engaging face, holding a little dog and wearing a hat with flowers tucked into the brim. It is a portrait within a masterpiece which has been reproduced on a million postcards, magnets, bookmarks and posters, a fresh sensation of beauty and social interaction, known and loved around the world.

Indeed Renoir, with his brilliant depictions of the easy laughter and abundant revelries of Parisian society in the late 19th century, could be said to have given a visual image, almost a brand, to the emerging modern phenomenon of French café society, which went on to influence the whole of Europe.

The Impressionists, probably above all art groups, found inspiration in the busy, social, urban world of café life. They were a perfect fit. The café, with its notion of a freely available menu, no formal sittings and no set dishes, fitted in perfectly with the Impressionist rejection of the formal artist's studio, of fixed sittings and posture, of stasis. No wonder so many cafés, over a century later, are still decorated with prints of famous Impressionist paintings; the posters of Lautrec, the drinkers of Monet and the bon viveurs of Renoir, depicting men and women enjoying life together, work perfectly on their walls.

Yet Renoir also needed to stretch his artistic muscles, and late in the summer of 1883, he and Aline spent a month in St Peter Port, the capital of Guernsey, where he started at least 15 paintings of the coast and countryside, paintings which he was to complete later in his Paris studio. Here he painted Aline, with her tip-tilted nose, long dark hair and dark eyebrows, sitting by the seashore on a chair, or reclining nude in the landscape.

Intriguingly, this was the year when his counterpart and great friend Claude Monet would also leave Paris and spend some time painting the Channel coastline, in Monet's case, along the rocky Normandy shore. Two years later, in 1885, the year that their first son, Pierre, was born, Aline managed to get Renoir to visit her home village of Essoyes, in the Champagne region. While he thrived in the bohemian hotchpotch of Montmartre, Renoir was also enchanted by this simple country world, and from this time visited it every summer. Even though Aline's mother was at first opposed to her daughter marrying an impoverished painter, he came to be accepted and loved by her family. He eventually bought a house in Essoyes and painted the local countrywomen, his children and Gabrielle Renard, nurse for Pierre and his two younger sons Jean and Claude, also known as Coco, whom Renoir depicted in a charming sketch also to be sold in February's Impressionist and Modern Sale. Gabrielle became one of his favorite nude models, but he continued to paint his wife Aline, by now rather matronly, but still beautiful.

Aline died in 1915, after returning from visiting their son Jean, who was seriously wounded by a shot in the leg during World War One. Renoir himself lived for four more years, but Jean wrote in his memoir that he was crushed by her death. Once the radical anti-establishment painter, he lived to see one of his paintings, Portrait de Madame Georges Charpentier, exhibited at the Louvre and bought for the nation. The outsider had reached the ultimate accolade of the establishment. Months before he died, he was pushed through the great Parisian gallery in a wheelchair by friends so he could see his painting hanging alongside the masterpieces he had looked at so often and studied as a boy. He died in 1919 and is buried next to Aline in Essoyes cemetery, according to their wishes.

Rosie Millard is a writer, broadcaster and former BBC Arts Correspondent.

Inventing Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market is on display at the Musée du Luxembourg, Paris until 8 February and then at the National Gallery, London from 4 March to 31 May. And finally at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 24 June to 13 September

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