This very pleasant drawing, Peasant Girl With Dog, was done in red chalk on cream-colored paper by Pierre-August Renoir (1841-1919) in 1894, one of the most celebrated Impressionist painters. With perhaps the exception of Edgar Degas, drawings by Impressionist masters are relatively rare – mainly because Impressionists gave up on drawing.
The characteristics we associate with Impressionism largely emerged from the paintings of Renoir and Claude Monet executed between 1867 and 1870. Between the two of them, they changed the ‘language’ of painting, the after-effects of which are felt to this day. Impressionists painted directly from the subject (dancers, farmers, seascapes, picnicers) to retain the changing nature of appearances. They achieved this effect by using broadly painted broken brush-strokes, and by trying to capture objects as they change. (It is not unusual for an Impressionist still life to include slightly wilted flowers.) I also think of the advent of Impressionism as the era in which the mind and optic nerve parted ways: the largely intellectual, skill-based discipline of drawing (and painting) was largely abandoned in favor of sensation.
The canon of Impressionists paintings has, once this new language of painting became more familiar, become very popular with the public. This is largely because many of the Impressionists (Renoir, Monet, Degas et al) were wonderful colorists. They painted slices of life rather than epic history or Biblical pictures, or formal portraits, and with this revolution, the centuries-old artistic tradition that began in the early Renaissance began to erode.
Renoir was born in Limoges and moved to Paris in 18S45. His early work was as a porcelain painter, and he used the money he earned to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he became a pupil of Gleyre with Monet, Bazille and Sisley. He exhibited in four of the eight Impressionist exhibitions which launched the movement and was one of the leading lights of the revolution until it was perceived that his native good humor led the more zealous Impressionists to dismiss him for not being ‘serious.’ (It is a mystery to your correspondent why ‘dour’ is equated with ‘serious,’ but that is perhaps the topic of a future post.)
We’ll look at Renoir’s life in greater detail tomorrow, but till then, let’s look at the above drawing. The overall effect is a very pleasant one, but it seems to your correspondent to be little more than an artful doodle. The woman’s anatomy looks to be sound, but much more is suggested than depicted. The arm supporting the head seems a bit crabbed, and the head itself unevenly fitted to the torso. The dog resting on the woman seems to be to scale, until one begins to wonder upon what low object the woman is sitting, or ponders how big is the bottom of the dog’s body. The other dog is standing on its hind legs, unless it is a dry run for the final depiction of the dog. The trees and fields are sketched out with a few loose lines, but mass is convincingly created. So, like much of the Impressionist canon, the overall effect is quite nice, but it does not really support detailed viewing.
If I sound prejudiced against the Impressionists, well …, I am. While I love much of the work, I cannot separate my momentary optic pleasure from the realization that the movement was the beginning of the end of art. As Impressionists largely abandoned the discipline of drawing and the long apprenticeship of the Beaux-Arts tradition, art became less about skill and more about ‘feeling.’ It may be a big step between the pretty pictures of Renoir and the horrors of de Kooning, but Impressionism was the necessary first step that made the ugly irrelevancies of Modernism possible.