La Lecture 1918
This wonderfully tender and harmonious painting is one of the most beautiful, touching and serene of Renoir’s last works. The photograph below from the major 1934 late Renoir painting exhibition at The Paul Rosenberg Gallery, Paris shows La Lecture next to Renoir’s undisputed late masterpiece Les Baigneuses of 1918-19.
La Lecture demonstrates Renoir’s masterly ability to lyrically and vibrantly portray his sitters in an entirely natural way. In later years, success allowed him to paint the sitters who most interested and touched him, especially his family and those he chose to see on a daily basis.
La Lecture magically captures a lovingly observed moment in which two beautiful young women, oblivious to all around them, even the artist, are entranced by the words they read.
In 1954, La Lecture was sold at the Galerie Charpentier in Paris to a private English collector in whose family possession it remained until its sale. Its first museum showing since 1938 was in the 2010 Philadelphia Museum of Art’s reappraising landmark exhibition Renoir in The 20th Century, where it was tellingly displayed in the same room as Les Baigneuses; and hung between The Courtauld Gallery’s Woman Tying her Shoe and The Art Gallery of Ontario’s The Concert (see below).
Whilst the sitters cannot, with certainty, be identified, the dark-haired woman on the right closely resembles Gabrielle (see Gabrielle à la Rose, Musée d’Orsay, below) the young maid who remained with the Renoir family until 1913 and became a favourite model. The other sitter may be Andrée Heuschling, who was introduced to him by Matisse and married Jean Renoir in 1921.
Renoir, in his late work, was able to reconcile his profound love of the painters of the past – among them Titian, Raphael, Rubens, Fragonard and Watteau – with his vision of the life he saw around him. It is this, in part, that accounts for his influence on 20th century artists, most notably Picasso, Matisse and Bonnard.
John House, in the ‘Renoir in the 20th Century’ exhibition catalogue, writes:
Throughout his career, Renoir tried to break down the barriers between the art of the past and his own direct visual experience of the world around him. The past painters whom he most admired were those whose work, as he saw it, revealed a belief in timeless notions of beauty, but at the same time was enlivened by direct observation.
Miraculously, Renoir was able to transcend his own physical suffering, the death of his wife and the wounding of his two sons in the First World War; and continue painting with undiminished passion. Pain passes, but beauty endures. I am perfectly happy and will not die until I have created my masterpiece, he told Matisse.
La Lecture is a wonderful example of the artist continuing joyously to paint the sublime beauty of women. His vibrant, resonating colours dominated by his signature ‘red’ became a feature of his late work. As Renoir explained to the American painter Walter Pach:
I want a red to be sonorous, to sound like a bell; if it doesn't turn out that way, I put more reds or other colours till I get it. (...) there are myriads of tiny tints. I must find the ones that will make the flesh on my canvas live and quiver.
(W. Pach, Queer Thing Painting, 1938, reprinted in Nicholas Wadley (ed.). Renoir. A Retrospective, New York, 1987, p. 244).
The richness of colour, freedom and monumental figures of Renoir’s late work greatly impressed Picasso. And his own monumental neo-Classical paintings (see below) from the early 1920s owe much to the Renoirs he saw at the dealer Paul Rosenberg.
Picasso’s studio was next to the Rosenberg gallery, but despite Rosenberg’s attempts to introduce them, the two artists never met. However, in homage, Picasso made his piercingly moving posthumous pencil portrait of Renoir based on Durand-Ruel’s photograph. He later acquired seven Renoir paintings, the majority depicting the late monumental figures.
Bonnard met Renoir in the 1890’s through ‘La Revue Blanche’. ‘You have a little note of charm’, Renoir told him, ‘Do not neglect it. It is a precious gift’. Bonnard’s Le Petit Dejeuner (below) shows the deep affinity he felt for Renoir’s work.
Matisse, who lived in the South of France, first visited Renoir in 1917. He would watch Renoir painting in his garden and sometimes join him (see photograph below).
Matisse owned several late Renoirs and continued to see Renoir’s family after the artist’s death. In 1920, he wrote: The visit I made last week to Renoir’s, where I looked over his pictures in my own time, helped me a great deal. (H. Matisse, quoted in ibid, p. 139).
Renoir’s artistic genius, also his heroism, made a deep impression on Matisse. He described Renoir’s late work as including ‘The loveliest nudes ever painted. No one has done better’. And he proclaimed Les Baigneuses ‘His masterpiece, one of the most beautiful pictures ever painted’ (quoted in ibid, p. 142). Matisse’s The Moorish Screen 1922 would meaningfully hang with La Lecture.
The writer and critic Théodore Duret wrote:
Renoir excels at portraits. Not only does he catch the external features, but through them he pinpoints the model’s character and inner self. I doubt whether any painter has ever interpreted women in a more seductive manner. The deft and lively touches of Renoir’s brush are charming, supple and unrestrained, making flesh transparent and tinting the cheeks and lips with a perfect living hue. Renoir’s women are enchantresses.
(T. Duret, reprinted in Histoire des Peintres Impressionnistes, Paris, 1922, pp. 27-28).
Were a selection ever to be made of the most joyously touching, vibrant and life-affirming paintings of the 20th Century, La Lecture would surely be prominent among them.
Jeune Fille en Rouge oil 9 x 8 ins
Fishes oil 8 x 14 ins
La Foret oil 9 x 12 ins
Young Man with a Red Tie oil 26 x 21.25 ins
Francois Daulte, in his 1971 Renoir Catalogue Raisonné entry for this portrait, states according to some, this picture represents Eugene Renoir, the only son of the artists brother Victor.
And in the catalogue index:
Renoir, Eugene, Fils unique de Victor Renoir, Eugene Renoir embrassa la carriere militaire. Sous-officier, il servit pendant de longues annees dans les troupes coloniales en Afrique et en Asie. Il posa pour Renoir en 1890. 633.
Paul Renoir, grandson of the artist and owner of extensive family archives, has now confirmed the sitters identity as being Eugene [see attached letter to Richard Nathanson]. Eugene was born in 1863 and died in 1941. He was present at the wedding of Claude, Pauls father, and visited the family home almost every summer.
Renoirs son Jean, in his biography Renoir, My Father, provides [P.275-278] a vivid description of the eccentric, half Russian Eugene which explains the composure and fortitude of character so wonderfully depicted in this very particular and beautiful portrait.
Once when my cousin Eugene was spending the summer at Essoyes, in a fit of gallantry he offered to make a neat pile of the firewood which a wood-cutter had just delivered to my grandmother Melie. And an astonishing sight it was to see this man who had never deigned to carry even so much as a small parcel set about piling up logs under the old ladys critical eye. He had got well on with his chore, when she remarked: You are not doing it the right way. You should not put the little logs in with the big ones. You are quite right, answered Eugene quietly, and, dropping the armful he was carrying, he went home and took a nap.
Because Renoir rather admired his nephews unruffled calm, I think I ought to give some further details about Eugene.
It may be remembered that Uncle Victor, who was five years older than my father, had become a tailor. A Russian grand duke was so pleased with the jackets he had made for him that he took my uncle back to Russia with him, where he married and had a son called Eugene, who my father maintained was more Russian than the Russians. Victor became a fashionable tailor in Saint Petersburg, made money, bought himself a two-horse Victoria for the summer, a sleigh for the winter, and a country house. He covered his wife with jewels. She was the soul of indolence, for she rarely got up from her chaise longue, and fed entirely on liqueur chocolates. Young Eugene spent most of his time with the servants and a tutor who made him learn all the novels of Eugene Sue by heart.
My uncles undoing came about through the vogue for womens tailor-made suits, for it brought him innumerable female customers whose charms he was unable to resist. The more unfaithful he was to his wife, the more she reclined on her chaise-longue and ate nothing but chocolates, and finally she died from the effects of it all. Victor squandered his fortune on his lovely customers and had to sell his house and return to France with Eugene. By that time he was in poor health himself. Caviar and vodka had done for him what March sleet and the autumn rains were later to do for his younger brothers. My mother settled him with some peasants in Essoyes, where he lived quite happily for several years. He so much loved staying in bed that eventually he never left it.
Uncle Victor died without too much suffering, and he was sincerely missed by the good people he had stayed with, for they had grown quite attached to this gentleman who had had his fling.
As for cousin Eugene, my mother took him in hand and set about finding some occupation for him. She got him placed as an apprentice to a dealer in canvas from whom Renoir bought his materials, but at the end of a week he was discharged. He met with the same fate after working in turn for a maker of picture-frames, a tailor, and a grocer. Eugene frankly warned my parents that it would be the same no matter where he was placed. Although still young, he had, after seeing his mother reposing day in and day out on her couch, sworn to follow her example and never lift his hand to do a stroke of work. My mother tried to make him feel ashamed. She pointed out that a boy of eighteen, in good health and with a good education, should earn his living. The appeal to his self-respect failed, however, whereupon she tried to frighten him with the spectre of poverty. But he shook his head, smiled with an expression of gentle stubbornness, and in his drawling, slightly nasal voice, said, My dear Aunt, I have sworn never to work, and I dont intend ever to work. He added that the prospect of becoming a tramp had not terrors for him. When she found that her arguments were of no avail, she had a brilliant idea: put him in the army! She didnt wait to see what his reaction to this suggestion would be, but marched him off to the Pepiniere Barracks and made him sign up for five years.
He soon became an NCO., but refused to attend an officers training course because the effort involved was against his principles of professional laziness. He was transferred to the Colonial Army, and after re-enlisting several times he reached an age at which he was allowed to retire, on a pension which was modest but secure. Except for a few skirmishes, minor battles and military landings, which rather amused him, Eugene spent the greater part of his time in the army improving a network of roads in the jungle. Lying in a hammock, not in the least disturbed by the pickaxes or the shouts of those working under his orders, he languidly encouraged the cohorts of coloured troopers to sweat away for the glory of Western civilization. His subordinates worshipped him because he never raised his voice when giving orders.
He never married, as that would naturally have involved a certain amount of expense and to defray it would have meant working. Still, he almost yielded to the temptation once. The object of his passion was a widow. She belonged to a tribe in Central Africa, and was not only coal-black but as beautiful as a piece of ebony. Unfortunately her tribal religion forbade her to remarry until five years after her husbands death. Eugene was sent out on military duty to Indo-China and he gradually forgot his Congolese Venus.
He was very courageous; and paradoxically enough his laziness added to his courage. Once in Indo-China he settled in the wilds, in a hut in which a king cobra had installed itself. Eugene stayed in the lower part of the hut, while the cobra made its home above, just under the palm-leaf roof. As a room-mate he was no trouble at all. On the contrary, with him around there wasnt a rat to be seen. I could hear them scuttle when he would come back in the evening. He moved into the beams over my bed. We looked each other in the eye for a minute, and I blew out the lamp. In the morning, when he went out again, the noise of his movements served as an alarm-clock.
In addition to Russian and French, Eugene spoke Mandarin Chinese fluently, as well as Cantonese, Annamite, and several Indo-Chinese dialects. When he left the army, one of his friends made him the sales representative for the whole of Siberia of a well-known brand of champagne. He loved travelling about in a sleigh. If you are well wrapped up in furs you dont get cold and you can sleep. But he had to sell his product to his customers and that is work, so he gave up his lucrative job.
In 1914, when he was well over fifty, he re-enlisted in the Colonial Army, and fought under General Mangins command. He took part in several bayonet-charges, and was wounded at Verdun. I still have his Military Medal, the most distinguished of the French decorations or at any rate the only one that still amounts to something.
Of the six hundred and forty five figure paintings reproduced in Daultes 1971 Catalogue Raisonné Les Figures [1860-1890], just fifty are single adult male portraits. This rare portrait is a touching mark of Renoirs deep affection and respect for his sitter.
Hands painted as though almost of cascading water. And the clear lyrical delineation of the figure moving the eye from foreground, around body and head, and through the right arm into distance. Both accelerate the movement essential in conveying the character and mood portrayed.
The mirrored reflection of outside light, and curtain veil wafting dreamily across the doorframe. The jackets gently swirling pearly greys set against the soft blue wall, vivid red of his tie, and white of the collar. The pulsating, rhythmic movement of brush stroke colour and line. All accentuate the stillness of Eugenes steadfast character; and composed, monumental presence. His serene, fearless gaze fixes us. Also with humour, barely discernible about the mouth and in the subtle softness of the eyes, at the manifold absurdities of the world.
Eugenes hands - their strength and gentleness wonderfully depicted - are a sublime symbol of his nature. For Renoir, hands were the profoundest manifestation of character, as Jean Renoir recounts in his biography [P. 17].
When I [Renoir] think that I might have been born into a family of intellectuals! It would have taken me years to get rid of all their ideas and see things as they are. And I might have been awkward with my hands.
He talked constantly of hands. He always judged people he saw for the first time by their hands. Did you see that fellow, and the way he tore open his packet of cigarettes? Hes a scoundrel. And that woman: did you notice the way she brushed back her hair with her forefinger? a good girl. He would also say sometimes: stupid hands; witty hands; ordinary hands; whores hands .
One usually looks people in the eyes to see if they are sincere. Renoir always looked at their hands.
We shall see, gradually, how hard he found it to accept standard values. The idea that intellect is superior to the senses was not an article of faith with him. If he had been asked to name the different parts of the human body according to their value, he would certainly have begun with the hands. In an old desk drawer at home I have a pair of gloves which belonged to him: pale-grey gloves made of very fine leather, whose size sets one musing. he had unbelievably small hands for a man, Gabrielle said. If any ancestor were responsible for Renoirs hands, then instead of thinking of his shoemaker grandfathers thick fist, I should be inclined to conjure up the tiny fingers of some great lady more accustomed to playing the harpsichord than to doing the washing.
Femme au Chapeau de Fleurs oil
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