After Renoir acknowledged that "around 1883 [he was then in his early forties] a sort of break occurred in my work. I had gone to the end of impressionism and I was reaching the conclusion that I didn't know how either to paint or to draw. In a word, I was at a dead end." He destroyed some paintings and was seized by an actual hatred for impressionism. As an antidote, he painted several canvases in which every detail -- including the leaves of trees -- was first carefully drawn with pen and ink on the canvas before he took up his brush.
A number of watercolors were done in the same fashion, that is, color was added to more or less complete drawings; it was not part of them but played the rôle of a supplementary decoration. For three years Renoir labored at a large composition of bathers for which he did a great number of preparatory drawings, the kind of drawing he had never done before. It was the linear aspect of this composition which preoccupied him most, a contour both sinuous and stylized, naive and ingenious at the same time. His color became cold and almost crude, confined within the boundaries of precise outlines, no longer vibrating in unison with light-bathed volumes.
Turning toward line as a means of discipline, Renoir applied himself to simplifying forms at the expense of color. Like Ingres -- whom he understood better after having admired Raphael -- he tried to imprison breathing forms in rigorous contours, sometimes simple, sometimes even elegant, but occasionally also reminiscent of that linear "straitjacket" of which Baudelaire had spoken. So complete was the change in his work that many friends viewed Renoir's evolution with alarm, while others hailed in him the true inheritor of a great tradition.
The rumors which spread about his new style are reflected in an article by George Moore, who asserted that for two years Renoir had "laboured in the life class, working on an average from seven to ten hours a day, and in two years he had utterly destroyed every trace of the charming and delightful art which had taken him twenty years to build up." And Moore added, somewhat patronizingly: "I know of no more tragic story."
There was, however, nothing tragic in Renoir's development. With admirable lucidity and will-power he fought against his spontaneity, and what he lost in charm he gained in grandeur. When he eventually became aware of the fact that he would never completely defeat his spontaneity -- the most precious of his gifts-- he decided to abandon his onesided emphasis on line. "Honor to you, Renoir, for not having feared to commit an error!" Rouault later exclaimed. Indeed, Renoir might have erred in allowing himself to be inspired by Raphael and Ingres; but an error admitted is no longer an error -- it may even become a virtue.
When Renoir abandoned what has been called his "Ingresque" period, he was not only richer in experience, he was ready to be himself. Far from returning to where he had left off when he first went to Italy, he found himself on a new threshold, ready to combine his colorist's instinct with his draftsman's knowledge. Of impressionism he retained merely the glistening textures, the technique of small strokes, with which he now endeavored to create voluminous forms. He modeled with color, and though he did not rely on line, neither did he ignore it. Like Delacroix he achieved the perfect unity of color and line. But while the former's concern had been with movement, Renoir's was with plasticity.
Having found a way to unite color and line, Renoir discovered the whole range of possibilities offered by each. He began to consider drawings as works in themselves. They were no longer reproductions of his own paintings or occasional sketches to which he himself attached little importance, nor were they preparatory studies for his compositions. Line became a new medium for him, but, reluctant to separate it completely from color, he used chalks, of which sanguine became his favorite, from time to time livened by white highlights or by black accents. His sanguines were drawn, as has been said, "in flesh and blood."
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