Perhaps the most famous of Renoir’s works and a masterpiece of Impressionism, the Ball at the Moulin de la Galette is held at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Renoir exhibited at the first and second Impressionist exhibitions of 1874 and 1876, before showing the Ball at the third in 1877. It shows a Sunday afternoon at the Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre, where many Parisians would gather to revel. There was a windmill there that produced bread called ‘galette,’ thus the name. Renoir set up a studio nearby in an old cottage. He shows us the vigor of Parisian life in the mass of dancing couples, with a girl chatting to the boys in the foreground.
The Swing is a companion piece to the Ball at the Moulin de la Galette, and is held in the Musée d’Orsay too. It shows a single scene rather than a panorama of revellers. A girl stands on a swing, with a young man talking to her with his back to the viewer. She turns away, embarrassed at his flirtation perhaps, while a child looks up at the man and another peers at him from the background. Sunlight is broken by shadow as it comes through the trees. Renoir used some of the same models as he had in the Ball, including his brother Edmond and his friend, the artist Norbert Goeneutte, whilst the girl on the swing was the sister of the girl who features in the foreground of the Ball.
Renoir refused to participate in the fourth Impressionist exhibition in 1878. He started to look to Classical sources for inspiration in the 1880s. His figures become more defined, the structuring of his works tighter. We start to see this in the Luncheon of the Boating Party, an image of a group of diners at the Maison Fournaise, a restaurant on an island in the Seine much frequented by artists. Among those depicted are the collector Charles Ephrussi, painter Gustave Caillebotte, poet Jules Laforgue, and Renoir’s future wife Aline Charigot. Shown at the seventh Impressionist exhibition of 1882, it was bought by the patron of the Impressionists, Paul Durand-Ruel, and is now part of the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C.
Renoir called this painting Two Sisters, though Paul Durand-Ruel, its first owner, named it On The Terrace, which what it’s sometimes known as. Another owner was Charles Ephrussi who features in the Luncheon, before coming to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1933 where it has been ever since. In Two Sisters, we again see Renoir’s shift towards more precisely rendered, solid, figures. He shows two young girls, one in a bright red hat and blue coat, the other younger, with a basket of balls of wool before them. Behind them is the Seine. Shown at the exhibition of 1882, Renoir painted Two Sisters at the Maison Fournaise, like the Luncheon.
Renoir traveled through Italy in 1881, studying the works of Old Masters and Classical painters. His work continued to turn away from pure Impressionism on his return, becoming more restrained and emphasising the outlines of figures. Bougival was a suburb of Paris where many came to relax and dance. In the painting, two figures, a man and woman, dominate the canvas with drinkers in the background. The models were Renoir’s friend Paul Lhote and Suzanne Valandon who worked for Renoir for many years. The painting, on show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, was one of three showing a pair of dancers made for Paul Durand-Ruel in 1883.
The female nude became one of the central subjects of Renoir’s later work – nudes in repose, nudes bathing, single nudes and groups of them. Reclining Nude illustrates Renoir’s move towards crisp, sharp figure painting, the nude woman’s body outlined against as indistinct Impressionist landscape background. It evidences the Classical and Renaissance influences now working on Renoir, the nude being a staple in both movements: from the Venus di Milo, through Giorgione and Titian to Rubens. This work, though, references the great neo-classicist Ingres and his Grande Odalisque, in particular, with the woman’s back turned to the viewer. The 1880s were known as Renoir’s ‘Ingres Period.’ The work is held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The Large Bathers took Renoir three years of experimentation and hard work, only for critics to dismiss his work. This work can be seen as the culmination of his ‘Ingres Period.’ A group of female nudes frolic and cavort in a rustic landscape with a river running by. What strikes the viewer is how sculpted and well-rounded the figures are, how well defined they are against the background. Again, we see the influence of Ingres and Rubens, but also the outdoor pleasure scenes of the 18th century in the style of Antoine Watteau, known as the fête galante genre. It also influences the Ball at the Moulin de la Galette and the Luncheon Party.
In 1891 Renoir received an invitation from the French Government to provide new work for a museum of living artists, the Musée de Luxembourg. He painted Two Young Girls at the Piano, taking great care over the work and creating five versions in all. The paintings show the influence of 18th-century French genre painting in their focus on a simple domestic scene. The russet colors of the hair and the warm pink of the girl’s dress is a clear nod to Titian, the master colorist of Venice. The versions of the painting held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and in the Musée d’Orsay are regarded as the finest.
Renoir kept working up until his death in 1919, despite poor health. He moved to the Mediterranean coast and returned to painting female nudes in the open landscape. He envisioned the Mediterranean coast as an Arcadian idyll, inhabited by fleshy, voluptuous figures that reference the nudes of Rubens especially. With Bathers, two huge figures dominate the canvas while others bathe in the background. With this painting, Renoir set out to include nothing of the modern world, portraying instead an image of timelessness. The American painter Mary Cassatt described it sardonically as an image of ‘enormously fat women with very small heads.’ Renoir’s family gifted it to the French state in 1923. It’s now in the Musée d’Orsay.
Renoir started out as a porcelain painter, before he began copying the works he found in the Louvre in the 1860s. In 1862 he entered the studio of Charles Gleyre as a student, where he met Alfred Sisley and Claude Monet. In the summer of 1869 he came with Monet to the boating and pleasure resort of La Grenouillère on the Seine outside Paris. Both spent their time painting in the open air – the works they created are remarkably similar and are an important illustration of the early Impressionist method: broad brushstrokes are favored over finely detailed and precisely delineated elements, along with bright, vibrant colors. You’ll find Renoir’s La Grenouillère in the National Museum in Stockholm.