6 Interesting facts about Pierre-Auguste and Jean Renoir

Jessica Lone Summers

We delve into the lives of the talented creative father son duo who left iconic marks on the painting and cinema scenes

It’s not often that a parent/child duo will both be so unfailingly gifted (and hardworking) in their respective creative fields. But, such is the case with Pierre-Auguste and Jean Renoir who both left significant and influential impressions attached to their fields.

 

1. En Plein Air

Still of Jean Renoir, Picnic on the grass (Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe), 1959. © STUDIOCANAL. Courtesy of The Barnes Foundation.

Pierre-Auguste and his good friend Claude Monet were both part of a group of French impressionists who practiced en plein air (painting outside). It was through this that they discovered a process now known as “diffuse reflection” which dictates that a shadow isn't just blackness but actually a much darker version of the object creating the shadow. Pierre-Auguste’s paintings are filled with examples of his knowledge of this.

Through his father’s influence, Jean was a master at shooting outdoor films. During a 1936 interview with Cahiers du Cinema, Jean explained, “it’s for two reasons: first, because [Partie de Campagne] takes place during the period and in a place where my father worked a great deal in his youth. Second, it’s because I’m my father’s son, and one is inevitably influenced by one’s parents.”

"Why shouldn't art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world"—Pierre-Auguste Renoir

 

2. Jean and Pierre-Auguste’s work was hugely intertwined

Pierre-Auguste Renoir La Balançoire (The Swing) 1876. Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Even through they practiced creativity through different mediums. Jean was influenced by his fathers work and equally his own work shed new light on Pierre’s paintings. An extract from Renoir: Father and Son shows exactly how the two complimented each other so favourably.

Renoir’s relationship with his father for the twenty years before Partie de campagne can be divided into two periods: a phase of paternal influence followed by one of increasing independence. When Pierre-Auguste died, in 1919, Jean was twenty-four. During the preceding two or three years, he had often stayed with his father, who had passed on tales and stories about his past and shared his philosophy of life. During these years, Jean began to work in ceramics on his father’s advice; within weeks of his father’s death, he married the artist’s last model, Andrée Heuschling (later known as the actress Catherine Hessling); and, having inherited considerable wealth, he soon bought a villa in the village of Marlotte, on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau, where Auguste had painted his first pictures.

Over the next decade, however, as Jean gained experience and worked to build a reputation in an art form very different from painting, he eventually stopped referring to his father. Years after he turned thirty he had made a name for himself in his own right, and had built a new family, a “film family” of loyal colleagues, actors, and technicians who worked with him again and again. When he separated from Hessling, in the late 1920s, it was in this new milieu that he found his second partner, the film editor Marguerite Houllé (who took his surname although they never married). And it was under Houllé’s influence that Renoir, who until then had adopted his father’s ideas about politics (or rather his contempt for them), made a complete about-face in the two years preceding Partie de campagne: so in 1936, shortly before the elections that brought the Front populaire to power, he agreed to make a propaganda film for the French Communist Party, La vie est á nous (Life Belongs to Us).

 

3. Jean Renoir sold his father’s paintings to fund his early film career

Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Jean en chasseur (Jean as a Huntsman), 1910. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

After inheriting hundreds of his father’s paintings in 1919 following Pierre-Auguste’s death, Jean and his siblings donated some to museums. And Jean, struggling to find people willing to back him, sold some to fund his films himself. However, there was always one painting Jean treasured and kept for himself, a childhood portrait called Jean as a Huntsman. Pierre-Auguste had allowed his 16-year-old son to finally cut his long flowing hair and following this, the painting came about not by a trip out hunting but simply Pierre-Auguste instructing Jean to pose in such a way. The painting was an extremely bold move for the time—showing grandeur as well as blossoming colours—because of the kingly qualities suggested; such styles were usually reserved for royalty.

"I like to say that all great art is abstract, that Cézanne, Renoir, or Raphaél are abstract painters, that they can’t be judged by the resemblance of their paintings to their models." —Jean Renoir, in Cahiers du Cinéma, December 1957 

 

Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Les Baigneuses (The Bathers) 1919. Musee d'Orsay Paris

5. Both Pierre-Auguste and Jean went unappreciated for much of their early careers

Filmmakers were frightened of Jean’s honest scriptwriting and despite his reputation, he oft fought for acknowledgement his early years. In an Independent interview with actress, Leslie Caron, she called Jean saying “he was used to failure because of his father (the painter Pierre Auguste Renoir). His father's paintings were booed off the walls and he received nothing but insults in the papers. It was only at the end of his life that his father was appreciated.”

What they both indomitably proved however, was that sticking to your craft in the way you most enjoy and trust is the best way to secure not only a product worth being proud of, but a security in knowing you stuck to your guns.

 

5. Before embarking on film, Pierre-Auguste encouraged Jean to try his hand at ceramic work.

Jean was sent home following a World War I injury which damaged his leg and Pierre-Auguste, being keen on ceramics and having built a studio for his other son, Claude, was sure it would be a good line of work for Jean. 

An account from Renoir: Father and Son shows the process that Jean went through while making ceramic with his brother, Claude and painter, Albert André:

We got our clay out of the fields where the soil looked to us particularly heavy and mixed it with sand which we got from the bed of a stream. Then came the spinning. Our wheel was an old-fashioned one operated by a treadle. The baking was done in a wood-oven and took ten hours. In the evenings, while keeping a check on the temperature of the oven by means of a small hole bored in the door, we listened to records and ate pissalat.

 

6. Jean married one of Pierre-Auguste’s favourite muses, Catherine Hessling

Catherine Hessling as the eponymous Nana. Nane, Jean renoir 

He also cast her in most of his silent films during the 1920s. The way they both portrayed her however was starkly different. Pierre-Auguste showed her as a voluptuous curvy woman in the popular impressionist style of the time and often in the nude. In Jean’s films she was shown as a flapper-style slim woman, reminiscent of the time. 

Renoir: Father and Son: Painting and Cinema by Sylvie Patry is published by Flammarion, £35.