'Renoir In The 20th Century': A Master's Last Works

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Renoir paints with a brush tied to his arthritic hand during the last days of his life. i

At the end of his life, French impressionist master Pierre-Auguste Renoir continued painting — using a brush tied to his arthritic hand. Time and Life Pictures/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Time and Life Pictures/Getty Images
Renoir paints with a brush tied to his arthritic hand during the last days of his life.

At the end of his life, French impressionist master Pierre-Auguste Renoir continued painting — using a brush tied to his arthritic hand.

Time and Life Pictures/Getty Images

"I am just learning how to paint," Pierre-Auguste Renoir said in 1913 — six years before he died. The French master painted right up to the end of his life; he died in 1919 at age 78.

Works made by Renoir in the last three decades of his life — nudes, landscapes, girls at a piano, children with their nannies — are on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Toward the end of his life, Renoir repudiated the impressionist style he'd helped create in the 1860s — a revolution of quick brush strokes, fleeting images of everyday good times.

Sylvie Patry, curator at Musee d'Orsay in Paris, says Renoir went back to the basics established centuries earlier, by Titian and Rubens.

"You can just feel how Renoir mastered the use of color — the brush strokes — even if he was a sick man," says Patry.

Self-Portrait With White Hat by Renoir, 1910 i

Renoir's Self-Portrait with White Hat, which he painted in 1910. LACMA hide caption

itoggle caption LACMA
Self-Portrait With White Hat by Renoir, 1910

Renoir's Self-Portrait with White Hat, which he painted in 1910.

LACMA

Renoir had crippling rheumatoid arthritis — at the LACMA exhibit, there's a flickering black and white film that shows Renoir painting in 1915, despite his afflictions. His hands look like stumps of old trees — you can barely see his fingers because they are so curled in on themselves. Fabric is tied across Renoir's palms, to protect his skin.

In the newsreel footage, he clamps a paintbrush between the thumb and fist of his right hand. Renoir leans into the canvas as he paints. He talks while he works. He's lively, and his eyes are piercing.

LACMA Director Michael Govan says it's amazing to see a film of the great artist painting. In his wheelchair, Renoir is gaunt and emaciated. He is in pain, but he's making art — though not the same art he'd made in earlier years.

"I actually think there is a difference in choice of subject matter, and solidarity of space and form," Govan says of Renoir's later work.

Joseph Rishel, curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, agrees: "It's about beauty and a figure in space and a kind of stability," Rishel says.

Gabrielle with a Rose, 1911, by Renoir i

Gabrielle With A Rose, 1911: Gabrielle Renard was the Renoir family's longtime nanny — and the artist's muse. He painted her hundreds of times. Musee d'Orsay hide caption

itoggle caption Musee d'Orsay
Gabrielle with a Rose, 1911, by Renoir

Gabrielle With A Rose, 1911: Gabrielle Renard was the Renoir family's longtime nanny — and the artist's muse. He painted her hundreds of times.

Musee d'Orsay

In these last decades, Renoir's women are beautiful — with their lush, voluptuous figures. LACMA curator Claudia Einecke says Renoir looked for models whose pearly skin, as he put it, "took the light."

"It wasn't just the body type or the form of the shape," Einecke explains. "It was also the beauty of the skin and flesh itself."

One buxom beauty is Gabrielle Renard — the family's longtime, beloved nanny, and Renoir's model and muse. He painted her hundreds of times. In one image, from 1911, Gabrielle holds a pink rose to her ear.

"We know by photographs that the roses were paper," says Patry, of the Musee d'Orsay — where the Renoir show originated.

Gabrielle's skin is pearly-smooth, her breasts almost gleam. The negligee draped around her shoulders is painted in lively gray-whites with elaborate brush strokes.

Gabrielle and Jean, 1895, by Renoir i

Gabrielle And Jean, 1895: By the end of his life, Renoir was mainly painting friends and family — above, his son Jean with nanny, Gabrielle. Musee de l'Orangerie hide caption

itoggle caption Musee de l'Orangerie
Gabrielle and Jean, 1895, by Renoir

Gabrielle And Jean, 1895: By the end of his life, Renoir was mainly painting friends and family — above, his son Jean with nanny, Gabrielle.

Musee de l'Orangerie

A similar contrast can be seen in Renoir's 1913 portrait of French poet Alice Valliere Merzbach. She's fully clothed — which is itself a story: Alice wanted the famous Renoir to paint her portrait, but he wasn't interested. He didn't know her (by that time he was primarily painting his children, his friends or Gabrielle), and he didn't need the money. But Alice was persistent.

"She came back, and she had a very beautiful white satin dress," Patry explains. "And when Renoir saw the dress, he was very enthusiastic."

So Renoir lavished his attention on the gown. By contrast, Alice's face looks quickly painted — dark hair, eyebrows, pretty pink cheeks.

It's another Renoir face — his women, children, even his men look very much alike. Jean Renoir, one of the master's three sons (and a frequent subject of his father's work) — once remarked on that. He said that in his father's paintings, everyone looked as if they were brothers and sisters. "We are all Renoir's children in the paintings," Jean Renoir said.

Many of those "children," captured in oil paints by those gnarled, arthritic hands, are on view now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Renoir in the 20th Century will be on display until May 9.

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