Like fa­ther, like son

As the aes­thet­ics of Pierre-Au­guste Renoir in­spired the films of his son, so the ge­nius of Jean Renoir of­fers fresh per­spec­tives on the paint­ings of his fa­ther

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The artis­tic in­ter­ac­tions of Pierre-Au­guste and Jean Reno ir

Freudi­ans would have a field day with the film di­rec­tor Jean Renoir. His fa­ther, the im­pres­sion­ist painter Pierre-Au­guste Renoir, was 53 when Jean was born. Jean grew up sur­rounded by paint­ings of naked women, mar­ried his fa­ther’s last model and later brought his child­hood nurse­maid to live be­side him. She was his mother’s first cousin, one of the painter’s favourite mod­els and per­haps his mis­tress.

“I have spent my life try­ing to de­ter­mine the ex­tent of the in­flu­ence of my fa­ther upon me,” Jean Renoir wrote in 1974, in his book My Life and My Films. He said he al­ter­nated be­tween try­ing to es­cape from Pierre-Au­guste and “dwelling on the pre­cepts I gleaned from him”.

The ex­hi­bi­tion Renoir: Fa­ther and Son / Paint­ing and Cin­ema, re­cently moved from the Barnes Foun­da­tion, in Phil­a­del­phia, to the Musée d’Or­say, in Paris, where it re­mains un­til the new year.

“It is quite an ex­cep­tional, if not a unique, sit­u­a­tion in the his­tory of art, to have a fa­ther and son play such sig­nif­i­cant roles in their fields,” Sylvie Pa­try of the Musée d’Or­say says.

The ex­hi­bi­tion ex­plores in de­tail how Pierre-Au­guste’s paint­ing in­spired Jean’s films. It fac­tu­ally records the way the son in­her­ited his fa­ther’s loves, with­out delv­ing into the deeper psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions of those beau­ti­fully painted breasts.

The show also doc­u­ments the warm friend­ship be­tween Jean Renoir and Dr Al­bert Barnes, a Phil­a­del­phia chemist who earned a for­tune from a sil­ver-ni­trate an­ti­sep­tic use­ful in treat­ing vene­real dis­ease. He de­voted that for­tune to art, pur­chas­ing among other trea­sures most of Jean’s ceram­ics and many of the fleshy, red-tinged nudes that Pierre-Au­guste painted at the end of his life, and which were sav­aged by crit­ics. To­day the Barnes Foun­da­tion has 181 Renoirs, the world’s largest col­lec­tion.

At first glance, fa­ther and son were ex­tremely dif­fer­ent. Pierre-Au­guste ful­filled every­one’s stereo­typ­i­cal im­age of an im­pres­sion­ist painter. With his black beret and grey beard, he seems to re­cede into the past. Jean be­longed to the 20th cen­tury. He fought and was wounded in the first World War. He em­braced cin­ema, the 20th-cen­tury art form par ex­cel­lence, and was at the fore­front of cin­e­matic in­no­va­tion, mov­ing from silent films to talkies, from black and white to Tech­ni­color.

Yet Jean took in­spi­ra­tion from his fa­ther’s mi­lieu, in­clud­ing the writ­ings of Flaubert, Mau­pas­sant and Zola, and the paint­ings of Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec. He claimed to be­long in the 19th cen­tury, and re­tained some­thing of its sen­si­bil­ity. Pierre-Au­guste’s aes­thetic legacy per­me­ated his son’s films. As a true im­pres­sion­ist, Pierre-Au­guste painted out­doors. Jean shot nu­mer­ous films, in­clud­ing A Day in the Coun­try, Pic­nic on the Grass and The River , en plein air.

A Day in the Coun­try is con­sid­ered Jean Renoir’s most im­pres­sion­is­tic film. It is a happy story with a bit­ter-sweet end­ing, based on an 1881 novella by Mau­pas­sant. Renoir rigged a sling for the cam­era­man, his nephew Claude Renoir, to im­mor­talise Sylvia Bataille on a swing, an ob­vi­ous homage to his fa­ther’s 1876 mas­ter­piece,

The Swing, but also a wink at the 18th-cen­tury ro­coco painter Jean-Honoré Frag­o­nard, when Renoir showed Bataille’s pet­ti­coats.

Renoir shot A Day in the Coun­try in the sum­mer of 1936 on the banks of the River Lo­ing, where Pierre-Au­guste had painted. The 40-minute film re­mained un­fin­ished for a decade. Then it be­came a clas­sic, adu­lated by François Truf­faut and other new-wave di­rec­tors.

Nénette, the fe­male lead in Pic­nic on the Grass (1959), is a mod­ern young wo­man who wants to con­ceive a child by ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion. But when she chases a goat through high grass at Les

Col­lettes, the Renoir fam­ily home near Nice, she looks like a fig­ure in one of Pierre-Au­guste’s land­scapes.

Pierre-Au­guste Renoir suf­fered from se­vere rheuma­toid arthri­tis and grew pro­gres­sively paral­ysed over the last two decades of his life. In

Renoir, My Fa­ther, Jean’s 1962 bi­og­ra­phy of Pierre-Au­guste, he re­counted that be­fore the first World War a Vi­en­nese doc­tor tem­po­rar­ily re­stored Pierre-Au­guste’s use of his legs. But the painter aban­doned treat­ment be­cause he feared it would de­plete the strength he needed for paint­ing. “I pre­fer paint­ing to walk­ing!” he said.

De­spite his suf­fer­ing, Pierre-Au­guste’s art re­mained sen­sual, light and op­ti­mistic. “You must em­bel­lish!” he told his fel­low painter Pierre Bon­nard.

By con­trast, Jean’s war ex­pe­ri­ence, his adap­ta­tions of 19th-cen­tury nat­u­ral­ist writ­ers, and the medium of cin­ema it­self en­dowed his work with a moody re­al­ism not present in his fa­ther’s oeu­vre.

Two women pro­foundly marked the lives of Pierre-Au­guste and Jean Renoir. Both mod­elled for Pierre-Au­guste, and both ex­tended their love from fa­ther to son.

Pierre-Au­guste’s wife and Jean’s mother, born Aline Charigot, died of ill­ness and ex­haus­tion in 1915. She had trav­elled across France to find her two el­dest sons after both were wounded in the war. Be­fore Aline died, Jean wrote, she made a “last present” to her hus­band, a model called An­drée Heuschling, known as Dédée. Aline re­cruited her at the paint­ing academy in Nice.

When she first came to Les Col­lettes, Heuschling was “six­teen years old, red-haired, plump, and her skin ‘took the light’ bet­ter than any model that Renoir had ever had in his life,” Jean Renoir wrote. “She sang, slightly off key, the pop­u­lar songs of the day; told sto­ries about her girl­friends; was gay; and cast over my fa­ther the re­viv­i­fy­ing spell of her joy­ous youth.”

Pierre-Au­guste painted Heuschling at least 100 times in the last four years of his life. “An­drée was one of the vi­tal ele­ments which helped Renoir to in­ter­pret on his can­vas the tremen­dous cry of love he ut­tered at the end of life,” Jean wrote.

Jean said a Ger­man sniper “did me the favour of put­ting a bul­let through my leg” in 1915. He re­turned home to con­va­lesce, and found Heuschling mod­el­ling for his fa­ther. “Ev­ery evening she went home to Nice, and after she left the house seemed sad.”

Jean fell into the habit of driv­ing the model home. They mar­ried a month after Pierre-Au­guste died. Jean claimed he be­came a film-maker be­cause he wanted to make Dédée a star. The fa­ther’s last muse as a painter be­came the son’s first muse as a film-maker.

Heuschling re­named her­self Cather­ine Hessling and starred in half a dozen silent films by Jean Renoir, in­clud­ing Nana, from 1926, based on Zola’s novel. The film was a fi­nan­cial dis­as­ter that swal­lowed up much of Jean’s in­her­i­tance. He be­lieved Hessling had over­acted and cast an­other wo­man in his first talkie. Both in­ter­preted it as a be­trayal. The mar­riage ended.

Jean Renoir drew his epic film about the first

World War, Grand Il­lu­sion, from his own ex­pe­ri­ences. Shot two years be­fore the out­break of the sec­ond World War, the “grand il­lu­sion” of its ti­tle was the be­lief that there could not be an­other con­flict. The kind Ger­man widow who saves two es­caped French pris­on­ers shows them her fam­ily pho­to­graphs. Her hus­band and brothers were killed at Ver­dun, Liège, Charleroi and Tan­nen­berg, she says bit­terly; “Our great­est vic­to­ries.”

The Rules of the Game, from 1939, re­counts an up­per-class week­end hunt­ing party. Renoir echoed his fa­ther’s 1910 paint­ing of him, Jean as

a Hunts­man, by don­ning tweed breeches and jacket to act in the film. Pierre-Au­guste painted his son more than 60 times, but Jean as a

Hunts­man was the only por­trait his son kept with him his whole life.

Two decades be­fore An­drée Heuschling ar­rived to il­lu­mi­nate Pierre-Au­guste Renoir’s last years, an ear­lier model in­spired the painter and cap­tured his son’s heart. Gabrielle Re­nard, one of Aline Renoir’s cousins, was a coun­try girl from Aline’s home vil­lage of Es­soyes, in eastern France. She was 16 when she came to Paris to be the in­fant Jean’s nurse­maid.

Gabrielle raised Jean Renoir. Pierre-Au­guste’s paint­ings of Gabrielle and Jean are his most ten­der. But Gabrielle could also be exquisitely sen­sual, as in Gabrielle with a Rose, painted in 1911. Two years later Aline sent Gabrielle away, out of jeal­ousy, ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can painter Mary Cas­satt.

Jean Renoir was Gabrielle’s wit­ness when she mar­ried the Amer­i­can painter Con­rad Slade, who looked and painted like Pierre-Au­guste Renoir. She named her only son Jean, and after Jean and his wife moved to Bev­erly Hills, in 1940, Gabrielle and her fam­ily moved in next door, at his re­quest.

In the epi­logue to My Life and My Films Renoir ad­dressed him­self di­rectly to Gabrielle. “My farewell to my child­hood world may be ex­pressed in very few words,” he wrote, “Wait for me, Gabrielle.”

■ Renoir: Fa­ther and Son / Paint­ing and Cin­ema is at the Musée d’Or­say, Paris, un­til Jan­uary 27th, 2019


Op­po­site page: Pierre-Au­guste and Jean Renoir, to­gether in Paris circa 1916. Above: Renoir’s The Swing (1876) along­side a set shotfrom A Day in the Coun­try (1936) Left and be­low: on the set of Jean Renoir’s 1959 film Pic­nic on the Grass and Renoir’s Path in High Grass (1875). PHO­TO­GRAPHS:

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