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The nude paintings of Renoir

oil painting of. A self-portrait painted by walter sickert.

Left, painting of Renoir by Bazille, 1867Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born February 25th 1841, the sixth of seven children. His farther was taylor, his mother a dressmaker. Renoir had an early start as a painter. In 1854 he was apprenticed for four years to a porcelain painter. Later he worked as a decorator for a blinds company and as a painter of fans; also a mural-painter of bars and cafes. In Paris, 1860-64 he starts to copy paintings in the Louvre, at the same time training under the artist Charles Cleyre. Claude Monet was a fellow student, and another leading light in the was to become the Impressionist movement. During these years Renoir meets most of the leading figures of that movement, including Cezzane and Pissarro.

painting of a semi-nude by artist walter sickert.

Painting right: "Nude in the Sunlight, painted 1875

In 1866 he submitted two paintings for the Official Salon annual exhibition. The Official Salon was virtually the only way an artist in France could exhibit and sell their work and was an arm of the government. Many of the younger artists felt that the system was outdated and didn’t represent what they were about. The first Impressionist exhibition – organised to show the paintings that the Official Salon had rejected – was held in 1874 and this event was eventually to change art forever. It was to provide the bridge by which the younger artists could leave behind the academic painting and move onto other styles – And also other subject matter. The new breed of artists left behind the familiar subject matter of their masters, which were largely subjects based on mythology, religion, history and classical landscape.

nude painting of woman on a bed by artist walter sickert

Renoir was one of the leaders of the new “Impressionist” movement. Though strictly speaking it was never a movement in the normal sense of the word. It never had a manifesto or a set of rules. It was just a loose collection of like-minded artists. Nor was the word, now a part of our daily lives, dreamed up by the impressionist painters themselves. In fact it was intended as a term of derision. The first Impressionist exhibition was as a direct result of this band of younger artists wanting to break away from ‘tradition’ and paint in a different way. At this point in time, 1874, the Official Salon was the leading arbitrator of taste and style in the French art world. Then, on April 15th of 1874, some thirty artists exhibited over 165 paintings. One of the purposes of the exhibition was to show art in an informal setting, more resembling an artist’s studio, and not the rigid stultifying and elitist grandeur of the Salon. Today we are so used to the word Impressionism and so it’s rather interesting how the term came about. Of all the works displayed, only one had the word “Impression” in the title – Claude Monet’s now famous “Impression, Sunrise”(see illustration opposite). This painting was intended to show the new approach to painting. When the critics saw they openly sneered at it, claiming it was “unfinished”. They missed Monet’s point completely. What Monet was trying to achieve was that fleeting moment in time, capturing the effect of light, rather than producing a painting that depicted the harbour at Le Havre. One of these critics saw Monet’s painting, laughed at it and used the title to label this band of artists as mere “Impressionist” of unfinished paintings, and so this new term stuck to this group. When one considers it, it would be extremely difficult to come up with a better term to describe this new revolutionary movement!

painting by walter sickert of a nude, lying on a bed


What kind of artist was Renoir? The following is how others saw him. In the 1870s the actress Jeanne Samary said of him: “Renoir is not the marrying kind. He marries all the women he paints, but with a brush.” Ambrose Vollard, the art dealer, said that he remembered Renoir explaining to him a still-life of roses as “…an experiment I’m making in flesh tones for a nude.” And as Walter Sickert remarked. “He is better at women than flowers. They interest him more.” Others mad the observation that his paintings were only for the benefit of the viewer, illustrated by the following quote: “…palpable flesh displayed for the viewer’s pleasure.”

painting of a female nude by artist walter sickertLeft. This Caricature appeared in March 1882, under the heading of: “A Visit to the Impressionist” and titled: "Sleeping girl with a Cat." This cartoon sums up the kind of derision aimed at the Impressionist.

painting of a female nude by artist walter sickert

Throughout his career, Renoir painted hundreds of nudes – His favourite subject. He liked to paint women on the large side, heavily breasted and smooth curves. He rendered them in rich, glowing colours. He once said. “My concern has always been to paint nudes as if they were some splendid fruit.” I’ve seen a number of Renoir’s paintings in galleries and I believe him to be virtually unequalled in his use of oil paint. His colours are really masterful and are achieved, I believe, from his early years as a painter on porcelain. Another fascinating aspect to his painting is how he achieves full form of a figure often without detail. He merely hints with a few skilful brushstrokes what he wants the eye to see. “….Now his brush delights to glide in the thinnest transparency of glazes; then again it lingers to spread gravely a dense impasto of colour. He is continually modifying the theme of his harmonies…”

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