Renoir, My Father, Paperback
3 out of 5 (1 rating)




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This portrait of Auguste Renoir by his filmmaker son Jean has the advantage that Jean conjures up intimate memories and everyday details about Renoir that no other biographer could. He starts off strong and is good at setting the stage historically, describing the progress in the world over the course of Renoir’s life, and the changing political situation in 19th century France. I was also fascinated by his inclusion of several full newspaper reviews of the exhibition in 1874 that gave the group the name ‘Impressionists’; the comments vilifying their work are truly shocking and a caution to anyone who would view art of a type they had never seen before and not the norm and demean it. Lastly, his description of Renoir’s severe rheumatoid arthritis and the difficulty that presented to his painting over the last twenty years of his life was simultaneously dignified and poignant.On the other hand, Jean’s authorship has disadvantages: the details become mundane, there is little structure and as he draws on all sorts of memories of childhood, it becomes unfocused (though one could I suppose say he creates an impressionist painting here, haha), and lastly, Renoir himself comes across as a crotchety old man as Jean recalls all of his varied opinions on the people and world around him. Examples abound: “The artist who uses the least of what is called imagination will be the greatest.” “I like women best when they don’t know how to read; and when they wipe their baby’s behind themselves.”“He contended that the lack of physical exercise – ‘and the best exercise for a woman is to kneel down and scrub the floor, light fires or do the washing: their bellies need movement of that sort’ – was going to produce girls incapable of enjoying sexual intercourse to the full. … ‘There’s a risk that love-making, even the most normal, may become a kind of masturbation.’”“A great many geniuses have been syphilitic. Perhaps I ought to wish you had caught that disease.”“He argued, for instance, that one should accept the caste system of the Hindus, which they had practiced for four thousand years.”“It’s all Pasteur’s fault. With his vaccine, and all the children who have been saved by it, this planet is getting dangerously overpopulated. Perhaps God has sent us pederasty to keep things in balance.” (this in a rant equating homosexuality with pedophilia :(“For my father, the gramophone presented another danger to our civilization.”To a father: “If your daughter only had a little of the whore about her, she would be an extraordinary singer.”And on and on. Oh, and he also proclaims that Brie is the king of cheese, when everyone knows it’s Parmigiano-Reggiano. That’s minus half a star right there. (kidding, I would expect nothing less from a Parisian) Seriously, the book would have been better if the raw material - the childhood memories and family history Jean had access to - had been provided to a better writer, who could have edited it down (this book is too long!), and balanced it out with objective information from other sources. I did like to see the color plates of about 16 of his works (as well as the black and white photos of him and his family), but with one or two exceptions, thought the selection could have been much better. It seems to me it was skewed too much towards showing family members or acquaintances in his paintings. If you’re a huge Renoir fan, this book is probably worth reading; otherwise, I think it will be hit and miss, and you’d be better off starting with the fictionalized biographies of other artists. Lust For Life comes to mind.

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