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You can buy hand-painted reproduction art by Renoir at Bohemian Fine Art.

Angry young man

Degas teased him, Picasso mocked him. But Renoir wasn't always a painter of happy, inoffensive scenes.

We have no language in which to praise gentleness. A century of revolution since Pablo Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon has made it almost impossible to say: "This art is pretty, unchallenging and middle-class, and I like it." Well, I like the art works of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and it is all those things.

I'd love to be able to show you the dark side of Renoir's art, but close as I look, I can't find social criticism or anxiety in his canvases. Even when it rains, his Paris is a joyful place where people don't so much cower under their umbrellas as flirt and chatter beneath a dancing cluster of bobbing blue canopies. His oil painting Les Parapluies (The Umbrellas) in London 's National Gallery may as well be called I Love Paris in the Rain. How smart and stylish the people are under their parapluies, and how the wet sky sets off the brightness of their clothes - the different blues in a woman's hat, the lighter blue headgear worn by a little girl. The feathery, soft textures of these garments corresponding with melting, tender glances between people who belong to the same happy, confident world.

Many artists have been able to look at modern life and see nothing but joy and pleasure, but Renoir could, and it has made him the least fashionable impressionist painter among critics and art historians.  

Once upon a time, people were shocked by Renoir. When a group calling itself the Société Anonyme held a show in Paris in 1874, critics were appalled to see what looked like mere oil sketches displayed as finished works. One wit looked at these vague daubs and called the artists "impressionists". In 1876, the critic Albert Wolff shuddered: "Try to explain to M Renoir that a woman's torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh."

Wolff saw in Renoir's 1876 painting Woman's Torso in the Sunlight the monstrous essence of the new modern style. Renoir and his associates did not do as artists had been taught since the 16th century, and look beyond the surface randomness of bodies and scenery to reconstruct the essential underlying truth. In all previous art, it had been taken as given that an object should be shown to the eye in its fullness, its essential nature.

The impressionists, as their apt nickname recognises, recorded instead what they saw and how they saw it - if sunshine dappled breasts, it was dappled breasts Renoir painted. In his Boating on the Seine, two women row on the river. Their faces draw the eye, all the more because we can't really see them: the closer you look, the more they become veils of colour. There isn't a single solid line in the painting; sails, leaves, a house are all just congregations of brushstrokes. To see such a scene, in which characters seem to drift accidentally into view and the painter to accept whatever passing light hits his eye as he works in the open air - it was the first great trauma of modern art, the beginning of the dismantling of every preconception of the visual world. And yet Renoir would make it his life's work to betray the radicalism of his youth.

As early as 1882, when he was already starting to sell at good prices, Renoir refused to exhibit with the radical impressionists led by the anarchist Camille Pissarro. By 1897, his oil paintings were being purchased by the French state. Renoir lived to see his art collected by New York 's Metropolitan Museum and exhibited in London 's National Gallery. Shortly before his death in 1919, the paralysed old painter was given the accolade of seeing one of his canvases displayed next to the work of his hero Paolo Veronese in the Louvre. Even after his death, his name was a living force in French culture through his son Jean, the great film director. He came to stand for tradition, for painting as such, in a way it was easy for youngsters like Picasso to mock. Even Degas laughed at his friend's style, calling it as puffy as cotton wool.

Renoir translated his warm appetite for middle-class beauty into society portraiture; for example, in his 1878 Mme Charpentier and Her Children. Such a picture showed how the new style could become a respectable art of the salon. This irredeemably compromised side to Renoir has stuck to his reputation. It can be quite ugly to read a letter from him refusing to exhibit with the leftwing "Israelite" Pissarro, because it would risk his new-found society success.

Renoir was not born rich. He was apprenticed as a painter of little scenes on porcelain - not a lavish start. He was a self-made man and when he got into the elite, he wanted to stay there. This didn't stop him being one of the first supporters of Cézanne's "difficult" art. Yet nowadays, Renoir's reputation is far lower than Monet's or Cézanne's, let alone that of Manet. Impressionist art has been reimagined by a generation of radical art historians. It's surprising how much subversion you can find in scenes of boulevard cafe life when you look: every barmaid becomes a marginalised proletarian, every Pissarro woodcutter has a bomb in his satchel. But you can't find any such subversion in Renoir. Even his scenes of sleazy Montmartre bohemian life - his Dance at the Moulin de la Galette is the original Montmartre painting, long before Toulouse-Lautrec - have something sweet and reassuring about them. Maybe the men are adulterers and the women prostitutes, but it's still a bourgeois idyll.

Well, if you can't enjoy a bit of escapism, you probably shouldn't be looking at impressionist art. Renoir may have been the first impressionist to betray the movement's avant-garde potential, yet he is also the purest of all impressionist painters - and remained so all his life. Perhaps it is not so much Renoir who is hard to defend, as impressionism. As a movement, it lasted less than a decade; why was that? It was such a delicate, vulnerable idea. To rejoice in the passing loveliness of urban life, and find pastoral delight in the countryside without seeing its oppressions - the illusory nature of this has always been so easy to point out.

The clue to what impressionism really is, as a view of life, is there at the very end of Renoir's career when he was taken, in a great state, to see Veronese's Wedding at Cana in the Louvre. This vast 16th-century Venetian painting of an open-air banquet teems with life and colour. Nearby is Titian's Concert Champêtre, whose scene of two clothed men and two naked women in a soft, yielding countryside was another iconic work for the impressionists. In other words, it's wrong to see impressionist art as a realistic portrayal of contemporary life. It is a modern pastoral from which life's cares are deliberately excluded. All pure impressionist painting is like this, but only Renoir makes it explicit. Far from merely being Monet's assiduous follower, he is the movement's most articulate theorist - and it is this pure dedication to the idea of art as pleasure that makes him so hard to take in our joyless age.

Renoir is the guardian of a courtly tradition that stretches from the Renaissance through the French rococo to the boating parties of the 19th-century bourgeoisie. He lived through two wars, but it never occurred to him that art was about war or politics. It existed to enhance life.



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