Though the crisis through which Renoir passed between 1881-83 and 1888 ought not to be either overlooked or regarded as an error, his art is not, in its evolution, divisible. In his case there was neither a first manner nor a final period : Renoir's art developed after the fashion of a normal, average man, neither more poetical nor more intelligent than another; we cannot dare to speak of his genius, -- a word which, applied to him, is monstrous. A sort of Delacroix who had lost his aristocracy and fallen to the rank of a mere government employee, Renoir nevertheless succeeded, like his master, in retaining his independence and guarding his liberty against the journalistic dragooning of thought, against complacent admiration for progress and civic amorphism.
To remain faithful to nature was sufficient for him. His art developed after the manner of a plant in fertile earth : from the seed to the flower and thence to the fruit. Under such circumstances crisis becomes part of the ordinary rhythm of all growth and is the herald of vitality. Through not having experienced the physical disquietude of puberty, the other impressionist painters passed from childhood to old-age without becoming adult, without having felt the power of creation.
Renoir's periods of childhood were at one and the same time bold and prudent. Here and there he sought for a father, but not a professor. Courbet -- he who painted Les Demoiselles de la Seine -- gave him strength. «Yet, as far as I am concerned,» said Renoir, «I vastly prefer a halfpenny plate with three pretty tones on it to miles of extra-strong -- and wearisome -- painting!» From Diaz -- «my great man,» said Renoir -- he asked for colour, which in the case of this painter was then as brilliant as precious-stones. It was Diaz who supplied Monticelli, Renoir and Van Gogh with the reflection of Delacroix. He was the first and for a long time the only one who could appreciate Renoir's drawing; and it was in the midst of the Forest of Fontainebleau that they became acquainted with each other.
But Courbet «was still tradition,» and his «clumsy draughtsmanship», his spiritual vulgarity did not long appeal to Renoir, notwithstanding his Diane chasseresse (a faked nude) and his Baigneuse au Griffon; whereas Manet«represented a new era in painting. . . He marked the advent of a generation of painters at a time when the destructive work, begun in 1789, was completed». Manet, copying Velazquez and Goya, was the forerunner, the standard-bearer of the new group, and Renoir followed him because he taught his school simplicity and the painter's craft. His Lise of the Folkwang Gallery in Essen followed one year later than Manet's La Femme au Perroquet, which is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
As to Corot, whom he placed higher than Claude Lorrain himself, he was to learn from him how, whilst remaining humbly submissive to nature, one could preserve -- as one ought -- one's personality intact. «Behold a painter who created a tree of his own!» he exclaimed; for Corot «corrected nature». And yet «that did not prevent him depicting her with a reality which no impressionist painter had ever been able to equal». The story of Corot's tree was to be provided with a parallel in Renoir's nudes.
Up to 1873 Renoir hesitated, -- at first, driven from pillar to post between the instruction received in Gleyre's studio, Signol's admonishments, and his leanings towards the «new» painting. For a time he appeared to escape very narrowly from the career of an official painter with his portraits of Sisley, Mme Darras, Captain Darras, Mme Maître, La Dame à la Cage, L'Amazone, and other canvases... That meagre painting was fortunately mingled with subjects of every-day life which forced Renoir to steep himself in the open air, -- in the free and salutary atmosphere of La Grenouillière. Le Ménage Sisley strengthened confidence in him. Yet Renoir was manifestly seeking to please and flatter; at times his manner bordered on preciosity; his object, as he himself said, was to turn an easel-picture into something pretty.
It was the popular life of Chatou and Argenteuil which prevented Renoir from following the same road as that taken by Carolus-Duran and Gervex. Though Renoir became at that time the historian of the suburbs and the working-class quarters of Paris, -- though one cannot recall those years without Le Déjeuner des Canotiers and the Moulin de la Galette coming uppermost in one's mind, this was not through the application of a system, nor through a desire on his part to establish a certain notoriety by the repetition of one class of subjects.
By no means did he confine himself to La Grenouillière, but painted wherever he was pleased to do so, -- in cafés, in theatres and in his studio. We have already seen that the Titians of the Louvre inspired those narrow and overloaded compositions in which several truncated figures are squeezed within the frames; and already Renoir sensed the danger of dispersion in the open air, of scattering amidst reflections and resplendence. It is easy to understand that he had no desire to abandon too soon the lessons of Courbet and above all those of Delacroix.
It was in 1875 that he copied La Noce Juive, an indoor scene with deep shadows, well-defined volumes, and sonorous colouring; and in the works of that period he covered the whole of his canvas, did not concentrate himself on describing the scene but suggested it just sufficiently, and then filled the space with round convex forms. Even in the case of open air scenes he took little interest in the decorative part, whilst the landscape remained directly dependent on the figures around whom it was concentrated or from whom it appeared to emanate. The living anecdote which was the pretext for the work already tended to disappear and give place to something else than «a document of contemporary life». But Renoir still lacked the power to soar above immediate pleasure and spontaneous satisfaction; he was lacking a knowledge of how to compose otherwise than by means of harmonious colouring and atmospheric effects; he had still to know how to fix the consistency and recognize the full value of weight.
Auguste Renoir, Ball at the Moulin De La Galette, Young Girls on the River Bank, Impressionism, Girls Picking Flowers in a Meadow, Picking Flowers, The Luncheon of the Boating Party, The Apple Seller, Alice Gamby in the Garden, Young Girl Sitting in the Grass, Dance at Bougival, Little Algerian Girl, Reading Woman, Deux Soeurs, Alphonsine Fournaise at the Grenouillere, Young Girls at the Piano, L'Estaque, Yvonne et Jean, La Baigneuse, In the Luxembourg Gardens, Jeune Fille Blonde, Auguste Renoir Portraits, Dahlias, The Little Fisherwoman (Marthe Berard), The Excursionist, On the Terrace, Baigneuse Au Griffon, Bather with Griffon, Lady with a Parasol, The Pond at Fees, La Loge