National Gallery Sheds New Light On Renoir's Landscapes

By Graham Spicer | 20 February 2007
painting of a group of people stood on a round jetty on a river

La Grenouillère (1869). © The National Art Museums of Sweden

Graham Spicer journeys to the National Gallery to discover the lesser-known landscape work of Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Renoir Landscapes 1865-1883 is the first major exhibition in Britain of the French Impressionist for 20 years, and the first to examine his landscapes.

So if you’re expecting to see the instantly recognisable works like Dance at the Moulin de la Galette you could be disappointed. But if you want to see lesser-known treasures from one of our best-loved painters, then this exhibition, running until May 20 2007 at the National Gallery, will certainly deliver.

Renoir believed that landscape painting was the only true way to develop as a painter, partly because one was forced to use colours and tones that the constrained lighting of a studio did not afford.

painting of a man stood painting at an easel in a garden

Claude Monet Painting in his Garden at Argenteuil (c1873). © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut

In fact, landscape painting served as a kind of test-bed for the artist, and this display of 64 works shows his many stylistic innovations along with a fair few truly memorable images.

“Renoir was willing to push beyond the boundaries of landscape painting, almost to the level of abstraction,” explained joint curator Christopher Riopelle.

“We want to remind people of how daring, how innovative, how willing he was to break with convention and how this was particularly accentuated when he painted landscapes.”

painting of a bed of colourful flowers with two men in the background

Garden in the rue Cortot, Montmartre (1876). © Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born in 1849 in Limoges, France, and after a spell in a porcelain factory, where he painted flowers on china, he was admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1862.

He met Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and Frédéric Bazille, other pioneers of the Impressionist movement, at about the same time.

Renoir’s collaborations with these, and other artists, were recurring features of his career, and in fact the exhibition places Monet’s Bathers at La Grenouillère next to Renior’s painting of the same scene, both made in 1869.

Another work on display is Claude Monet Painting in his Garden at Argenteuil (c1873), an affectionate treatment of his friend.

painting of a pathway going through lots of palm trees

The Jardin d'Essai, Algiers (1881). © MGM MIRAGE Corporate Collection

Like this work, the exhibition does in fact contain some portraits, like Luncheon at La Fournaise (1875), which is reminiscent of his more famous figurative works. The selections are included, however, for their seamless integration of figures into a landscape, such as with the wonderful Garden In Rue Cortot Montmarte (1876).

In paintings like this, he used densely wrought layers of paint to create his colourful effect, in others, like The Harvesters (1873), it is the absence of paint which create the image of lightness.

From 1881 Renoir acquired an art dealer who successfully sold his works and provided him with a modest income. This gave the previously struggling artist the freedom to travel.

painting of a large church with a square in front of it

Piazza San Marco, Venice (1881). © The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota

He embarked first to Algiers in North Africa, a French colony, and made a series of remarkable paintings there. It seems that this trip, and his subsequent visits to Italy and the south of France, opened his eyes to even further possibilities in his painting.

Certainly the Mediterranean light made a strong impression on him, vividly shown in The Jardin d’Essai, Algiers (1881), where the fronds of the palm trees in the exotic gardens seem to explode like fireworks.

Arab Festival (1881) is also one of the most extraordinary works on show, bursting with life and colour. This was to become one of Renoir’s favourite landscapes, and his enthusiasm was taken up by Monet, who held the painting in his personal collection until his death.

He next travels to Italy, and on the advice of fellow painter James McNeil Whistler, stopped at Venice, where he produced fresh takes on the familiar and cityscapes. Piazza San Marco, Venice (1881), although unfinished, shows a looseness of style which sums up the luminosity of the square with seemingly effortless ease.

painting of a rocky crag

Rocky Crags at L'Estaque (1882). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts

After a spell in Naples he sought out Paul Cezanne, who was working in the South of France, and although he later played down his fellow artist’s influence, it is clear that he learned much from his radical approach to painting.

After 1883 Renoir turned more and more to figurative painting, and it is here that the exhibition ends, with some rather quaint scenes of Guernsey, which nevertheless hint at the way his style was maturing and would manifest itself in his later works.

While some of the paintings displayed seem included merely to demonstrate a stylistic point, and are no longer as engaging as they were once radical, there are equally many in this exhibition to captivate the viewer. The exhibition provides a fascinating insight into a long-neglected aspect of Renoir’s work.

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