How Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Paintings Inspired His Son’s Famous Films
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean as a Huntsman (Jean en chasseur), 1910. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Swing (La Balançoire), 1876. © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Patrice Schmidt. Courtesy of Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Depending on your frame of artistic reference, you may think of different people when you hear the name Renoir: Either the renowned Impressionist painter, Pierre-Auguste, known for outdoor scenes of Parisian revelry, or his celebrated filmmaker son, Jean, whose career spanned silent movies to Technicolor. Both were nicknamed le patron (the boss) in their respective visual art forms. The artistic dialogue between this unusual father-and-son pair is the subject of a recently opened exhibition at Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation, “Renoir: Father and Son/Painting and Cinema.”
When considering the relationship between these two Renoirs, the portraits Pierre-Auguste made of Jean are a good place to start. For years as a child, Jean was not allowed to get a haircut. His father insisted on a silky, auburn-colored mane when completing the earliest of around 60 portraits that he eventually painted of his second son.
By the time Jean was 16 years old, though, he had been granted permission to get a trim, as evidenced in one of his father’s largest-scale portraits, Jean as a Huntsman (1910). Created at a portrait-rich time in the painter’s career, Pierre-Auguste was looking back at the genre’s heavyweights such as Diego Velázquez and Peter Paul Rubens. He posed his adolescent son in the full-scale format once reserved for nobility, and with the somewhat antiquated trappings of a princely life of leisure: equestrian dress, a dog and rifle, a nonchalant hand resting on the hip.
“In his career, [Jean as a Huntsman] is really an accomplishment,” Sylvie Patry—curator of the exhibition, chief curator at the Musée d’Orsay, and consulting curator at the Barnes—tells Artsy. “The Impressionist painter is integrating the great tradition in his own art; this picture is a very ambitious one.”
Still of Jean Renoir, Picnic on the grass (Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe), 1959. © STUDIOCANAL. Courtesy of The Barnes Foundation.
It was this painting of his father’s that Jean kept for his entire life, across transatlantic moves, even though he and his brothers inherited hundreds of other works when Pierre-Auguste died in 1919. They gifted some to museums, kept a few, and sold others (sometimes to finance Jean’s films). Despite selling many of his father’s other paintings over the years, this one remained on prominent and permanent display in Jean’s living room.
There was a personal connection, to be sure. But to Jean, the painting may have also symbolized the act of looking back at an artistic tradition and personally reinterpreting it in the present. In Jean as a Huntsman, Pierre-Auguste was translating the portraiture of his art-historical predecessors into an idiosyncratically Impressionistic style. And throughout his own career, unable to escape his father’s legacy, Jean metamorphosed the colorful-yet-motionless painted world he grew up seeing on his family’s walls into a dynamic, new black-and-white art form.
“I have spent my life trying to determine the extent of the influence of my father upon me,” Jean wrote in his 1974 memoir, My Life and My Films, “passing over the periods when I did my utmost to escape from it to dwell upon those where my mind was filled with the precepts I thought I had gleaned from him.”
Jean certainly gleaned a love of the scenery and time period of his father’s paintings. He shot many of his films in the French locales where his father and other Impressionists preferred to paint en plein air—like Marlotte, Paris, and Cagnes-sur-Mer. And he chose narratives set in the 19th century, such as Nana (1926), based on an Émile Zola novel; and French Cancan (1955), inspired by Parisian dance halls, such as the Moulin Rouge. He also forged the practice of filming outdoors, following the suit of painters who took their easels to the countryside.
“Jean Renoir was a pioneer in making movies outdoors,” Matthieu Orlean of La Cinémathèque Française tells Artsy. Not only did the practice allow him to recapture beloved scenery immortalized by the painters of his father’s generation, but it enabled him to experiment with natural light—an interest clearly shared by the Impressionists.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Bathers (Les Baigneuses), 1919. © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski. Courtesy of Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
“If certain landscapes, certain costumes, bring to mind my father’s paintings,” Jean said about one of his films, Partie de campagne (1936), in an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, “it’s for two reasons: first, because it takes place during the period and in a place where my father worked a great deal in his youth. Second, it’s because I’m my father’s son, and one is inevitably influenced by one’s parents.”
The influence was also present in far more personal ways. Shortly after Pierre-Auguste’s death, Jean married his father’s beloved last model of four years, Catherine Hessling, and cast her as the leading lady in his first silent films of the 1920s. It must certainly have been a little odd to marry a woman that your father painted nearly 100 times, mostly in the nude. Hessling looks very different, though, depending on which Renoir’s art we’re talking about. Pierre-Auguste’s paintings enhanced the young woman’s lithe, flapper-era body with a Rubenesque voluptuousness. In Jean’s films, she looks glamorously slim.
Adding rosiness and imaginary curves to an athletic woman like Hessling was about providing decadent visual delight—what Pierre-Auguste felt his role was as an artist. “What remains really consistent and a major source of interest for [Renoir] is light, colors, and the idea that the mission of the artist is to provide joy, gaiety to people,” Patry says. “The mission of the artist is to create a world for you to enjoy. The positive, the sunny side of life.”
In this sense, perhaps most of all, the father’s escapist approach to art influenced his movie-making son. One may long to waltz into the light-speckled world of saccharine pastels and women who picnic in the nude of a Renoir painting, like The Bathers from 1818–19 (which Hessling posed for). Bowl of popcorn in hand, one may also be transported into a nostalgic view of 19th-century France when going to see one of his son’s films, such as the equally sweet Partie de Campagne of 1936, which shows a summertime love affair in the countryside.
“Pierre-Auguste was able to paint his son, but the son was never able to film his father,” notes Patry. In his movies, though, Jean was able to cast his father’s motifs as recurring stars. Just as his father had once posed his young son as a fictitious prince, Jean reframed Pierre-Auguste’s imagery within his own new medium.