(1841 - 1919)








The figure shows a painting by Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841 - 1919), which represents an open-air dance in Paris, painted in 1876. When Jan Steen represented such a scene of revelry, he was eager to depict the various humorous types of the people. Watteau, in his dream scene of aristocratic festivals, wanted to capture the mood of a carefree existence. There is something of both in Renoir. He, too, has an eye for the behavior of the gay crowd and he, too, is enchanted by festive beauty. But his main interest lies elsewhere. He wants to conjure  up the gay medley of bright colours  and to study the effect of sunlight on the whirling throng. Even compared to Manet's painting of Monet's boat, the picture looks "sketchy" and unfinished. Only the heads of some figures in the foreground are shown with a certain amount of detail, but even they are painted in the most unconventional and daring manner. The eyes and forehead of the sitting lady lie in the shadow while the sun plays on her mouth and chin. Her bright dress is painted with loose strokes of the brush, bolder even than those used by Frans Hals, or Velásquez. . But these are the figures we focus on. Beyond, the forms are increasingly dissolved in sunlight and air. We are reminded of the way in which Francesco Guardi, conjured up the figures of his Venetian oarsmen with a pew patches of colour.







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 Le Moulin de la Galette
Oil on canvas
51 5/8 x 68 7/8 in. (131 x 175 cm)
Musee d'Orsay, Paris

After the lapse of a century it is hard for us to understand why these pictures aroused such a storm of derision and indignation. We realize without difficulty that the apparent sketchiness has nothing whatever to do with carelessness but is the outcome of great artistic wisdom. If Renoir had painted in every detail, the picture would look dull and lifeless. We remember that a similar conflict had faced artists once before, in the fifteenth century, when they had first discovered how to mirror nature. We remember that the very triumphs of naturalism and of perspective had led to their figures looking somewhat rigid and wooden, and that it was only the genius of Leonardo that overcame this difficulty by letting the forms intentionally merge into dark shows - the device that was called "sfumato". It was their discovery that dark shadows of the kind Leonardo used for modelling do not occur in sunlight and open air, which barred this traditional way out to the Impressionists. Hence, they had to go farther in the intentional blurring of outlines than any previous generation had gone.  They knew that the human eye is a marvelous instrument. You need only give in the right hint and it builds up for you the whole form which it knows to be there. But one must know how to look at such paintings. The people who first visited the Impressionist exhibition obviously poked their noses into the pictures and saw nothing but a confusion of casual brushstrokes. That is why they thought these painters must be mad.  


 (E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, Phaidon, London 1995, reprinted 1999)