Renoir was not to follow Cézanne further than that; he was not to experience the whole of the theoretical disquietude of the painter of Aix; he was to solve the problem in another more instructive, simpler, less mental manner. But momentarily their paths ran side by side, at a very essential time for Renoir, and it is necessary to recognise this fact.
At the same time that Renoir's aestheticism was undergoing modification, the character of his life changed. In the same way that the impressionist painter came to understand that a more complete form of art than this existed, so did the suburbanite discover that there were other countries than France. The man whose life had been sedentary suddenly became a traveller. Spiritually as well as physically, Renoir felt a need to move from place to place. Curiosity had taken hold of him. «I have suddenly become a traveller,» he wrote to Mme Charpentier, «and a fever to see the pictures of Raphael has taken possession of me».
We see him travelling backwards and forwards between Paris and Algeria, sojourning in Guernesey, making a lengthy tour in Italy, visiting Spain, Holland, and London. He went in search of advice to countries of ancient yet living art, in the footsteps of Delacroix, -- to countries of the art of the Renaissance where Paul Veronese, Titian, Carpaccio and Raphael painted, -- to countries where recollections of the art of most ancient times were to be found in the frescoes of Pompeii or in the ruins of Egypt, -- and also to countries where the fathers of modern art had flourished, -- Rembrandt, Velazquez, Goya, Turner, and Bonington.
But this was not the end of his metamorphosis. The bachelor married (in 1881) and the painter of Montmartre became not only a European but a family artist. At one and the same time his horizon extended and became concentrated, -- his affection revived and became fixed. This time, indeed, he entered into a full knowledge of the world and of life.
What did he bring back from Algeria? Very little. He was there in 1879, before going to Italy, and again in 1882, after another Italian visit. However, he found magnificent solar conditions there, the splendour of that Mediterranean atmosphere which clothes ragged beggars in shining mantles, which magically transforms the poor into Emirs, the palms into trees of gold, water into streams of diamonds, and humanity into a kingly community. There he satisfied his delectation as a colourist and could give full reign to his passion for light. But Renoir was seeking for something else -- restraint, and knew not how to discover under veiled faces the reflection of the Eternal; nor in the attitude of the Arabs the hall-mark of beauty. All that he could yet see there was a gleam.
Italy alone was a revelation to him, -- not merely Venice with which, naturally, he was already in communion, but the Italy of the masters of the XIVth century, of the Farnesian and Pompeïan periods. In the works of the artists of the century of Leo X, he admired, as Georges Rivière tells us, «the serene power, the sober richness of tones, and the linear harmony of great decorative ensembles». And this intimate friend and biographer adds : «He felt himself at home in that Italy, where, more than anywhere else, in the XVth century, the renaissance of the Greek spirit flourished».
The lesson which Renoir sought in Rome was not merely a technical one, -- it was a spiritual lesson; that which he found in the paintings of the Renaissance and in ancient fragments was the proof of divinity. Doubtless the supreme object of an artist's efforts, as he declared to M. Vollard : «must be to strengthen and perfect his craft incessantly». And it is only, he added, «by tradition that one can succeed therein». But, he continues, -- and the whole passage must be quoted, -- «though technique is the basis and the solid part of art, it is not everything. There is something else in the art of the ancients, who made their productions so beautiful; it is that serenity which leads to one never being tired of looking at them, which gives one the impression of something eternal. That serenity was part and parcel of themselves; and it was not merely the result of their simple, quiet life, it was also due to their religious faith. They were conscious of their weakness, so, alike amidst success or defeat, they associated divinity with their acts. God was ever there and Man was of no account.
With the Greeks, Apollo or Minerva reigned; whilst the painters of the Giotto period also chose a celestial protector. And thus it was that their works acquired that aspect of sweet serenity which gives them that profound charm and makes them immortal. But man, with his modern pride, is bound to refuse that collaboration, since in his own eyes he is diminished thereby. He has driven God away and in doing so he had driven away happiness...»
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