An in-depth biography of the French impressionist painter.
White (Impressionists Side by Side: Their Friendships, Rivalries, and Artistic Exchanges, 1996, etc.) is one of the leading authorities on the life and work of Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), “one of the greatest and most creative artists who ever lived.” Here, the author offers an “intimate” look into his life, a narrative fueled by her amassing a cache of more than 3,000 letters. Many are from the families of Renoir’s illegitimate daughter, Jeanne, and his three sons, including the great film director Jean (whose own biography of his father White calls “historical fiction”), as well as from fellow artists. They shed particular light on his relationships with key women in his life, especially his wife, female models, and fellow artist Berthe Morisot. In workmanlike prose, White moves forward in seven chronological sections, each representing specific phases of Renoir’s career. Throughout, the author presents Renoir as an “inspiring and heroic individual who overcame daunting obstacles.” In his early years, he experienced great poverty; when he finally began to find success, he became afflicted with paralyzing rheumatoid arthritis, which turned his fingers and hands into gnarled fists. He would have a brush tied between his fingers so he could continue to paint and smoke his beloved cigarettes, both of which he did relentlessly. Renoir created 4,019 paintings and hundreds of pastels and drawings. He was “complex, maddeningly ambivalent, yet endearing,” but he could also be “secretive, shrewd and even sneaky.” Though the writing is often dry, White does a fine job of tracing the phases of his career. His work—“permeated with the freedom and joie de vivre of the Impressionists, fused with a classical search for balanced compositions and form”—inspired many painters, including Matisse and Picasso (they almost met).
Ideal for readers seeking to delve deeply into Renoir’s personality; those seeking critical assessments of the individual works should look elsewhere.