13 January 2021

Early Renoir: Revolution Is On The Table


Renoir is not one of my favorite painters, no matter how long the list gets he does not make it. The later the works the less I find to admire in them, especially the nudes which seem voyeuristic. But there are exceptions in Renoir's early work, like The Luncheon, painted in 1875. Just the year before the artist had participated in the first Impressionist exhibition, the one that had earned this loose-knit group the  derisive nickname from critics.

As a picture The Luncheon is a combination plate; the wainscoting and the wallpaper in the background of the restaurant where the young couple sit have been drawn in a detailed and realistic manner while a revolution is taking place on the table where they are seated, belying the quiet mood.

With colors but no lines Renoir's bravura verisimilitude recreates solid physical objects out of light.  That silver soup tureen turns out, on close inspection to be composed of the three primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) with white supplying the reflective sheen of silver.  Next to it the baguette is rendered in broad strokes of red an yellow. And that splash of green sits atop the wine bottle like a cork. The diagonal axes formed by the knife and the baguette and the position of the table keep the riotous colors from spinning into space.


Even more evanescent is the appearance of the wine glasses.  Renoir conveys the look and feel of the glasses with tiny strokes of bright white against a sheer silvery veil; we see the tablecloth and the man's blue sleeve refracted through the glass.  Dabs of pinkish red are the remains of the wine itself, colorful yet clear. 
And what of the reflected light that seems to be coming from an unseen window at the right edge of the canvas?  There are shadows cast by  the baguette and the man's hand resting on the table. And there are dabs of light (more white paint) on the bread knife and on the  knife the young woman grasps in her hand.

The Paris of  Renoir's. youth had doubled its population in a mere two decades from 1850 to 1870. With such rapid growth there were bound to be social upheavals and changing mores. Renoir had a nose for the new modern pleasures, a heady combination of boating, bathing, and flirtation that took place on Sundays at cafes along the Seine.  The most famous and definitely the one most-painted was La Grenouille  (The Frog  Pond), what the French call a gangette -  a floating bar.  In 1869 even th Emperor and his wife ventured out to see what made it a hot spot.  The straw boater hat hanging on the empty chair signals that The Luncheon is one of these Sunday outings.

The son of a tailor, Renoir had learned to draw using his father's marking chalk - the feathery, flickering brushstrokes. At thirteen Pierre apprenticed at a porcelain workshop where he soaked up a taste for decorative colors. The brushstrokes made possible by the ferule, a flat metal sleeve constraining the bristles,  revolutionized painting, making those quick, agitated strokes possible. Plus  imagination and daring and bravura technique.

Image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir - The Luncheon, 1875, oil on canvas, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

2 comments:

Michael R. Patton said...

Glad to see that the lantern is still shining brightly.

Jane A Librizzi said...

Hello, Michael. Like you, I'm in this for the long haul. Thanks for the kind thought.