Earthy Muse In 'Renoir' Helped Bridge Painting And Cinema The biopic Renoir plots the final years of the impressionist master Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and creating the film's sumptuous imagery took a special eye for detail. NPR's Susan Stamberg explores the inspirations behind the film.
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Painting 'Renoir' In Finely Detailed Strokes

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Painting 'Renoir' In Finely Detailed Strokes

Painting 'Renoir' In Finely Detailed Strokes

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The French painter Renoir, one of the creators of Impressionism, is the subject of a new French film that's being released in the United States. It imagines the last years of the painter's life. He was surrounded by soft hills, doting housemaids, and a new young model who becomes his muse.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says this is the second film to capture the master in motion.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: The first film, a flickering black and white silent made in 1915, documents the real Pierre-Auguste Renoir sitting at his easel, just working away.

MICHAEL GOVAN: You're seeing Renoir painting on film. How amazing is that to be thinking of an artist you think is long gone, and there he is in the film?

STAMBERG: Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum. The three-minute footage was shown there a few years ago, as part of an exhibition of late Renoir works.


STAMBERG: In the new feature film, which also takes place in 1915, the master is painting again - this time in rich, rippling color. The movie, "Renoir," is full of close-ups of the artist's hand and brush, tickling the canvas. How'd they do that?

Director Gilles Bourdos says first he auditioned copyists. They made careful, authentic-looking reproductions of Renoirs. But they didn't catch the master's gestures - the bold, free flicks of the brush. Bourdos kept looking and found a felon.

GILLES BOURDOS: After a couple of months, I found a very interesting man. A forger. He was a gangster. You know?


STAMBERG: Just out of jail, Guy Ribes showed the director his police record, and a totally imagined Renoir painting that looked like the real thing. Voila. Watching the forger's rhythms in the film, you would swear it was Renoir himself at that easel.


STAMBERG: There he sits, 74 years old, crippled by agonizing arthritis. His hands look like stumps of very old trees. Housemaids bathe the hands regularly in ice water to ease Renoir's misery. They tie cloth around his fists so his fingernails won't curl into his palms.

BOURDOS: He was in pain and also he was in grief because his wife passed away a couple months before.

STAMBERG: And two of his sons have been wounded on the World War I frontlines. And so, the handle of a paintbrush shoved under the bandage on his right hand, the brush clamped between his thumb and his gnarled fist, Renoir's only pleasure comes from painting. He makes pictures of his children, his friends, fruit, until a beautiful young red-head shows up.

BOURDOS: She was only 17. She was an orphan. She was poor. And she was dreaming of something big.

STAMBERG: Andree Heuschling - she was called DeeDee - was after fame and fortune. She'd never heard of Renoir.

BOURDOS: She didn't know nothing about the painting or of the painter, who was famous or not, at this moment.

STAMBERG: In the film, DeeDee is sent to Renoir by his wife. The artist's son, Jean, calls it his mother's last gift to her husband. But director Gilles Bourdos says there's another story about how DeeDee got there.

BOURDOS: She show up one time to see Matisse and Matisse said, you are not a Matisse, you are a Renoir.

STAMBERG: She becomes Renoir's last model. Pearly rose and serene on his canvases, the film reveals DeeDee Heuschling as a wild girl - determined, forceful.


STAMBERG: Renoir liked that. She knew who she was.


BOURDOS: She was a kind of tornado, full of energy, you know, and a little bit lunatic.

STAMBERG: A lunatic? A little lunatic.

BOURDOS: Yeah. Yeah.

STAMBERG: Well, the painter had his own demons. He could be cold, aloof.

BOURDOS: To paint or to create, or to write, or to make music you need huge concentration. You know? It's not an easy work. I mean people think because you are painting flowers, children or nudes, it's an easy job. It's not at all.

STAMBERG: Once DeeDee arrived, Gilles Bourdos says the depressed, crippled artist began emerging from his sadness.

BOURDOS: She came and he found, again, a new energy to create. That's the whole point of the story. You know?

STAMBERG: He didn't just start to paint again. He started to painting nudes again.

BOURDOS: Exactly.

STAMBERG: What interests me is skin, Renoir says. Much of the film's dialogue comes from his son Jean's memoir of his father: The velvety texture of a young girl's skin.

BOURDOS: Absolutely.

STAMBERG: That's pretty sexy. You know, it's not just a painter saying that. It's a man.


BOURDOS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It's true for a filmmaker too, you know.


STAMBERG: Son Jean Renoir is also attracted. He falls in love with DeeDee. They marry. She pushes him to make something of himself.


STAMBERG: Jean Renoir became a major filmmaker and put her in his earliest movies. The beautiful, wild redhead was a lover to the son and a muse to the father.

BOURDOS: This young girl was a bridge between the painting and the cinema. She's the last model of the father and the first actress of the son.

STAMBERG: Last question to you about those last paintings, the ones, really, that the presence of DeeDee inspired. You know, many people look at those paintings - those big nudes, the bathing scenes - and find them very sentimental, very saccharine; kind of mushy.

BOURDOS: Mushy? What that mean?


BOURDOS: Oh, OK. OK. OK. If you really look carefully at these paintings, you will see something else. These women are really floating, you know, in a landscape. It's all about sensuality, color; it's a very specific vibration. When you know the guy was almost 75 and with a lot of pain making all this beauty, you know, your point of view change a lot.

STAMBERG: Gilles Bourdos, director of the film "Renoir." It's a slow, quiet visit to a house on the French Riviera where, surrounded by the sounds of birds and waving grasses, the great Impressionist lived and died.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


GREENE: And clips from the new "Renoir" film and real black and white images - footage from the old one - are both at our Web site at


GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.


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