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Renoir Landscapes

Renoir didn't rate his landscapes as much as his figure paintings. But they were a testing ground for what would come to be called Impressionism.


By the late 1860s, the French had formed a pretty exalted view of their landscape painters. "It's superfluous to state that our landscape painting is un- rivalled in the world," said Maxime Du Camp, shortly after the opening of the Exposition Universelle in 1867. "It's a well-known fact that no longer needs to be proven." Such confidence was based largely on the recent achievements of Corot, Daubingy, Théodore Rousseau and Courbet - artists whose work in fact showed a good deal of variety but who, because they did so much work around the forest of Fontainebleau, and formed a colony in the village of Barbizon, were soon yoked together and referred to as the Barbizon School. Though they relied for most of their sales on the support of the traditional annual Salon, where they frequently exhibited during the middle part of the century, they were nevertheless catering for a new kind of market: city dwellers who were comparatively newly rich, and self-consciously modern.



When Renoir began to make a reputation for himself (also during the 1860s), the Barbizons were both an unavoidable influence and a challenge. How could their undimmed sense of newness be further developed towards what later came to be known as impressionism? The answer to this question and to a great deal else about Renoir's evolution and importance as a painter is clear from the National Gallery's enterprising new show. Though Renoir is generally, and with good reason, considered to be a figure painter first and foremost, his work as a landscape painter during the 1860s, 70s and early 80s shows him using the genre as a kind of testing ground. Because he expected to achieve less as a landscape artist, he felt able to contest traditional forms more exuberantly - always with the intention of matching his methods to recognisably modern life. Though his structures and strategies continued to show the influence of the Barbizon   School and to respect their achievement, landscape painting was crucial to the discovery of his own independent self.


So was his friendship with Monet. The two men first met in 1861 and, six years later, both had their artwork rejected by the Salon (like Sisley, Pissaro, Cézanne and Manet), which cemented their alliance. They frequently painted together, several of their pictures are taken from the same viewpoint, and their pioneering methods owe a great deal to each other's example. We can see this very clearly and touchingly in Claude Monet Painting in his Garden at Argenteuil (1873). Renoir presents his friend wearing a round hat and dark coat, surrounded by his equipment - his paintbox and furled parasol lie on the ground at his feet, his left arm balances his palette and his left hand clutches a spray of brushes. It is the image of a kindred spirit, much of it painted with a flickering delicacy that is Monet's own hallmark, and the garden itself is a focus of shared wonderment: a concentration of red, yellow and white dahlias. Like the other scenes they both painted in the area (the local duck pond, and the railway bridge, for instance), it is a testament to common ideals.


Yet there are differences, too. Where Monet's own The Artist's Garden at Argenteuil is a modern rural idyll, with surrounding houses stripped out of the account, Renoir's picture registers the hinterland. In the process, it allows the viewer to feel that the garden's seclusion is compromised: it is a specifically suburban, not pastoral, scene. Gentility, the oil painting tells us, may be an admirable goal, but has to earn its place and know its limitations in a world that is increasingly hurried and harried.


This emphasis had its origins deep in Renoir's background. He was born in Limoges in 1841, the son of a tailor and dressmaker, who moved to Paris when Renoir was four years old. While still young, his family were compelled to move again to make way for new building, and though many of these improvements are the reason why Paris is so admired today, at the time Renoir felt they threatened not just his own way of life, but certain large-scale traditions as well. By the time he began working in earnest during the early 1860s (after a spell in a porcelain factory, painting flowers on china), he had learned how to resist turning this sense of loss into a nostalgic vision of the untrammelled past. Though some of his paintings exclude details of the city's modernisation, where he felt they represented something particularly ugly or actually barbaric, he is generally concerned to recognise them - as he does in Monet Painting in his Garden. It is this acceptance that eventually helped to endear him to his audience: he was a painter who lived in a recognisably modern world (the same world that his buyers inhabited), while also celebrating time-honoured needs and values.


And not only in gardens. As Renoir's career began to take off during the late 1860s, he produced several masterpieces of suburban pastoral. La Grenouillère (1869) is a good example. (Once again, it's a scene he tackled alongside Monet.) The subject is a boating and bathing place on the Ile de Croissy, one that was popular with Parisians and had been written up the previous year in the weekly L'Evénement Illustré in terms that well describe the scene Renoir shows: "One reaches the floating house by crossing a series of highly picturesque but very primitive footbridges. One footbridge connects the island to a little islet with a surface area of no more than ten square metres or so. A tree stands in the middle of the islet; there is only one tree and, to tell the truth, it seems somewhat surprised to be there."


Much of Renoir's painting focuses on these elements: its dry land teems with busybodying pets, fashionable men and women, and peeping children (one, strangely miniaturised, bends between the "surprised" tree and a huddle of dresses). These are all beautifully handled, in a way that illustrated weeklies would have approved - but it is the apparently less central concerns of the picture which prove Renoir's originality. An almost spectrally thin waiter on the bridge, the heads of bathers bobbing in the water, the shifting water itself: these all anticipate the more unstable forms of impressionism proper.


Other oil paintings in the early part of the National Gallery show confirm this interest in evanescence - in the way that plays of light and shade suggest the difficulty that even the most vigilant eye has in comprehending a scene, and in the implied fleetingness of life. Some of the most telling present us with scenes of figures in woodland, or under trees, or in shade of some other kind - A Clearing in the Woods (1865), for instance, or Jules Le Coeur and his Dogs Walking in the Forest of Fontainebleau (1866). The dappling in these oil paintings is a foretaste of more radical later works such as In the Wood (1877), which develops the Barbizon interest in such effects to the point at which the whole canvas shimmers with light slithering through leaves. Similarly, Allée in the Woods (1878/79), with its blending of sun and shadow, certainty and uncertainty, is at once a test of technique and a powerfully felt emotional response. Relishing the mixture of boldness (those russets, yellows and cobalt blues) and reserve (the darker boughs hanging across the top of the painting), we are drawn into a scene that blends ideas of shelter with evidence of mystery. It may, in some respects, be a scene designed to appeal to the bourgeoisie, but its evocation of flux is too dynamic to be entirely comfortable.


This lurking unease, which persists in spite of the pictures' delight in natural beauty, is linked to another characteristic. By the early 1870s, once again encouraged by Monet, Renoir had enough confidence in his techniques often to paint in a kind of shorthand, laying down patches of impasto, using quick dabs of the brush, deploying intense colours deftly and silkily. The Seine at Chatou (1871) is a case in point. His intention is not simply to manifest the key elements of colour and light in any given scene, but to capture a sense of inner wavering, to catch the moment between noticing a thing and comprehending it.


This inspired doubtfulness burns at the heart of the National Gallery's show: in The Wave (1879), for instance, or The Gust of Wind (1872). By handling his oil paint with such evocative economy, while at the same time blasting us with vibrant colour, Renoir delivers a world that feels simultaneously beyond our reach (or on the point of disintegration) and overwhelmingly present. The open-sidedness of the canvases reinforces this. The Gust of Wind, for instance, allows us to feel the unfocused foreground might stretch out indefinitely to either side, like the hurrying sky above it, as if we were not looking at a canvas at all, but snatching a view from the window of a moving train. Does this mean it's an image of endless solidity, or of eternal unravelling? Like the modern man that he was, Renoir leaves it to us to decide. One thing is sure, though: Renoir may have thought his landscapes less potent than his figure paintings, but the best of them (which is a good number) are entirely self-sufficient and compelling.


Renoir Landscapes: 1865-1883 is at the National Gallery, London , WC2, from February 21 until May 20


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