Jean Renoir

A biography of the Impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir, by his son, the French film director, Jean.

In principle, this is a simple book.  A fond, often sentimental, look back at the life one of the great artists of the late 19th, and early 20th, centuries, as remembered by his middle son, himself a famous artist in his own field, writing at a distance of forty-odd years after his father’s death.  Jean begins with the image of himself, wounded during the First World War, returning to the family home and spending time with his crippled father as he painted on during his final days, while recounting tales from his life and passing on wisdom to his son.  But it is this very dynamic that makes this more than a simple biography.  Not only are we dealing with a giant in the art world in Pierre Auguste, but we equally learn about the education, background and motivation of one of the great artists of cinema, whose films would go on to inspire the French nouvelle vague and countless others. 

The art of both the father and the son still resonate in the modern world, something that would surely delight them both, because one of the preoccupations of both the father and the son, which runs throughout the book, is the state of the modern world and the technological changes that were sweeping through France at the turn of the last century.  According to Pierre Auguste, the industrialisation of all industries was a travesty, destroying many people’s way of life, including his father’s work as a tailor and his own first job hand painting silhouettes of Mary Antoinette onto porcelein ornaments, and replacing them with machines.  not only that, but Pierre believed that the mechanisation of industry and art withdrew the personal uniqueness of objects and material in favour of mass-produced products of inferior quality.  Similarly, Pierre was disgusted with modern architecture and architects and town planners who had ruined the rambling, vital suburbs of Paris.  Linked to this too, was a mocking view of the French bourgeoise and middle classes, whom Renoir believed to be frauds, acting above their station and looking down on the working man, which Pierre believed himself to be throughout his life, even once his paintings gained renown and value.  this view of the bourgeoise is instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with Jean Renoir’s  film Le Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939),one of his truly great films.  Another of his great films was La Grande Illusion (1937) which was based on Jean’s views  and experiences of war, and it’s pointlessness and absurdity.  Again, these views align closely to the father’s, as Pierre Auguste is presented to us a pacifist who would not harm the tiniest insect and decried any loss of human life through warfare.

Jean presents his father’s recollections and sayings in quotation marks, literally putting words into his father’s mouth, and while it easy to speculate about the accuracy of everything that is presented to us, it certainly succeeds in forming a charming picture of the man.  Jean vividly paints scenes with the words he writes, often introducing a major incident in Pierre’s life before diverging on a tangent before teasing the reader back to the original point.  this rambling, though never incohesive, structure lends the biography a distinct charm, much like the rolling French countryside that surrounds the Renoir family on their summer vacations.  To read the book is to be immediately transported to a simpler, rural place of lazy sunny afternoons as Pierre paints a landscape out in the fields.  Unlike the typical biography, this book is not a statement of facts, it is not strictly chronological, and much of Jean Renoir’s storytelling cannot be regarded as fact, but this is not the author’s intention.  Instead, unlike any biography I have ever read, by the end of the book, as an aged Renoir puts down his brush for the last time, crippled by Rheumatism and quietly, unassumingly passes away, the reader cannot help but feel they have inherently gotten to know the great artist, that you have spent time in their busy Paris apartment, been inside Renoir’s studio as he paints his favourite models, or joined the family in their country retreat (great credit must go to the translation into English by Randolph and Dorothy Weaver for maintaining this feeling in the prose).

And the son too does give plenty of insight into the work of Pierre Auguste, describing in detail his preferred method of working, the models he preferred to use and the changing colours that made up his palette.  Alongside this we get a portrait of a rich family life, a loving and lasting marriage and an endless stream of fiends and relatives all made welcome by the Renoir’s.  This includes brief glimpses of the lives of other great Impressionist artists – including Manet, Monet, the ‘mad’ Cezanne, Sisley, Pisarro, Gauguin – art dealers such as Durand-Ruel and Vollard, and any number of writers and musicians.  In doing so, the book also becomes a potted history of this radical artistic movement that took the art world by storm at the turn of the century, initially ridiculed and rejected and eventually taking its place within the canon of painting.  And, of course, the other talented Renoir’s are here, eldest son and brother, Pierre, a distinguished theatre and film actor, and his son Claude, who would follow his Uncle Jean into film as a renowned cinematographer, working on some of his uncle’s films.  And Jean’s younger brother, also Claude, who too collaborated with Jean on several of his films.

It is quite a beautiful memoir and an insight into the artistic temperaments and inspirations of two of France’s giants, both in painting and cinema.  And that also is the other benefit of this biography – it deals with two individuals whose story is definitely worth reading, who have something vital to say about their own lives and about philosophies of life in general, and who have lived full and long lives in which they have attained a certain wisdom.  A look at the bookshelves of endless tacky ‘celebrity’ biographies, would suggest this is also a rare thing and this book should be treasured and valued for that reason alone.  It helps that Jean Renoir has also produced such an exquisite read.

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