“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
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.