Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)

Pierre Auguste Renoir was one of the founders and leading exponents of Impressionism. Of humble origins, he was born in Limoges, France, in 1841. Renoir showed talent early, and at the age of thirteen, was apprenticed for four years to a porcelain painter, while he continued to attend drawing classes at night.

At the age of twenty one he went to Paris and was accepted to study at the École des Beaux Arts. Whilst in Paris, he met Alfred Sisley and Claude Monet who were to become leading figures of the Impressionist movement. Renoir and associates took to painting outdoors in the forest at Fontainebleau outside Paris. The technique of painting in the open air was called en plein air, and enabled painters to capture the effects of light - the primary feature of the Impressionist style.

Renoir's first major painting, La Esmeralda, was accepted by the Salon in 1864. The Salon, sponsored by the French Government, was the official annual art exhibition of the Louvre, and acceptance signified recognition by the establishment. However, Renoir later destroyed La Esmeralda, claiming it was too academic and sombre.

During the 1860s Renoir continued to experiment with Impressionism. Concerned primarily with the effects of lights, the works of the Impressionists were characterised by small, brightly coloured dabs of paint applied with a flicking brushstroke. While many Impressionist painters gave up painting human forms to concentrate on landscapes, Renoir did not. He continued to paint portraits, and applied Impressionist principles to them.

In 1867, Renoir, along with other Impressionists such as Monet, had works turned down for exhibition by the Salon as their modern style did not fit in with the Salon's academic principles. Instead, in 1874 Renoir, and others who had suffered repeated rejection, held the first Impressionist Exhibition, in Paris. Renoir exhibited several works at this exhibition including Dancer (1874) and Theatre Box (1874). These works showed a lighter palette and more delicate and expressive brushstrokes than his previous works.

The second Impressionist Exhibition of 1876 included fifteen paintings by Renoir, although he was attacked by some critics, one describing his Study (Nude in the Sunlight) as a 'heap of decomposing flesh'. (1) The same year Renoir rented a studio in Montmartre and painted some of his most famous works, including Le Moulin de la Galette, which he exhibited at the third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877. This work depicted a particularly 'modern' subject, the crowd at an open-air dance hall in Montmartre.

While Renoir was a successful artist with a growing reputation, he still had to undertake many commissions to make money. These commissions included a large number of portraits of mothers and children.

In 1878 Renoir decided to return to exhibiting at the Salon. He refused to exhibit in the fourth and fifth Impressionist Exhibitions in 1879 and 1880, as he was afraid he would alienate some of his more conservative clients. The 1878 Salon exhibition was a great success for the artist, and marked the beginning of an era where he was largely free from financial constraints.

However, three years later Renoir suffered a breakdown. He visited Italy soon afterwards and was impressed by the works of the Renaissance artist Raphael (1483-1520). The influence of Raphael and other Renaissance artists led Renoir to paint in a crisper, more linear style. Renoir called this new technique his manière aigre or 'harsh style', though it also became known as his Ingres style after the famous French neo-classical artist. The Ingres style was not well received by the critics or Renoir's patrons.

During the late 1880s and 1890s Renoir searched for new motifs. He visited many of the great museums of Europe and his interest in the art of earlier artists continued to develop. Young Girls Playing Battledore and Shuttlecock (1886) was painted during this time.

By the turn of the century Renoir was gaining an international reputation, particularly in the United States of America, and in 1900 he was awarded the Légion d'honneur, one of France's top civic honours. After 1902 Renoir's health went into decline and from 1912 he was confined to a wheelchair. Nevertheless he continued to paint, and created several masterpieces such as Bathers (1918-9), although many critics claim his final years were marked by a spate of mediocre works. The style of Renoir's later years, named the 'Pearly style', was characterised by smooth brushwork based on half tones of crimson and white. Renoir died at this home in Casnes-sur-Mer, France, in 1919, aged seventy eight.

Renoir was one of the great Impressionist painters and he influenced later painters throughout the world, including Frances Hodgkins who painted many of her early works in an Impressionist style.


(1) Distel, Anne. (1996). (Pierre-) Auguste Renoir 1841 - 1919 in Turner, Jane. editor. The Dictionary of Art. London. vol 26. London: Macmillian. p 208.

More information

Some of the following publications may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves, or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre on Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa collection items may be ordered from Images, on Level 4.

  • Distel, Anne. (1996). (Pierre-) Auguste Renoir 1841 - 1919 in Turner, Jane. editor. The Dictionary of Art. London. vol 26. London: Macmillian.
  • House, John, Callen, Anthea and Adler, Kathleen (1994). Renoir: Master Impressionist. Sydney: Art Exhibitions Australia.
  • Wadley, Nicholas. Editor. 1987. Renoir: a retrospective. New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Ksouates.

Works by Pierre Auguste Renoir in Te Papa's collection


The young Renoir
photographer and date unknown
Courtesy, Bibliothèque national de France