The filmmaker Jean Renoir made a career of dismantling the beliefs of his absentee father, the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Jean satirized the aristocracy and upended his father’s saccharine scenes of leisure. An exhibition now at the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris, looks at their relationship.
The Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir rarely spent time with his second son, Jean. Whenever Pierre-Auguste was around the house, he demanded to be called patron—“the boss”—rather than the more typical papa, and Jean grew to view him more as a boarding school headmaster than as a father. As for the actual parenting, that was mostly left to the family’s nanny, Gabrielle Renard. Renard, who was only sixteen when she moved into the Renoirs’ home in Paris, spent years with Jean—taking him to the movies and to puppet shows, playing with toys and strolling the winding streets of Montmartre and the seaside in Cagnes-sur-Mer, where Pierre-Auguste moved the family. Ultimately, Renard became one of the central influences on Jean’s filmmaking career: where his father’s paintings often portrayed their French aristocratic class in an earnest, sentimental light, Jean’s films cut deeper, thanks to the influence of Renard’s critical sensitivity. “She taught me to see the face behind the mask and the fraud behind the flourishes,” Jean wrote at the beginning of his 1974 memoir, My Life and My Films. “She taught me to detest the cliché.”
The strained relationship between Renoir père and fils manifested itself in their art. Pierre-Auguste was most present when he was painting his son. His portrait of a one- or two-year-old Jean from 1895 depicts the boy in gauzy, halcyon strokes as he smiles and coos in Renard’s arms and plays with toy farm animals. Pierre-Auguste painted from behind his easel, watching his son at a remove, as though the childhood of the boy he was painting were already part of the past. Other times, he was strict with how his son acted and looked. He forbade Jean to get a haircut until he was sixteen, forcing him to grow out his reddish hair and dressing him up in the regalia of the bourgeoisie—a pair of equestrian trousers, a bright foulard—for the sake of his paintings.
When he did permit his son a haircut, even that was tied to his art: he wanted to depict Jean as a hunter for his painting Jean comme chasseur (1910), one of the most emotionally loaded paintings the elder Renoir ever crafted. Jean’s noble pose and his hunting outfit were meant as shorthand for his coming of age and his place within a larger artistic and aristocratic lineage. Stylistically, the work is evocative of Peter Paul Rubens and, even more so, Diego Velázquez’s commissioned portraits of young royalty. For Jean, however, this kind of portrait would become, as epitomized in his 1950 satiric film The Rules of the Game, a perfect encapsulation of the aristocracy’s—and his father’s—absurdity and, eventually, their self-inflicted demise.
There is always a good deal of tension within creative families. When calculating the causes for an artist’s creative success, what is the balance between DNA and family affluence and influence? And what are the emotional challenges within the family itself?
History has known many creative families. There are novelists such as the Waughs, the Brontës, the Amises, and the Dumases; musicians like the Marsalises; filmmakers like the Coppolas; painters like the Holbeins and the Brueghels. More rare, however, are families who succeed in separate creative pursuits—like Quincy Jones in music and his daughter Rashida in acting. Creativity, however, is often a wellspring, and children can be encouraged by their artist parents to “be creative” rather than pushed toward a specific medium. Kazuo Ishiguro, for instance, wanted first to become a musician before becoming a novelist. The author John Banville wanted first to become a painter (and his daughter Ellen is a singer). Even Pierre-Auguste first tried his hand at porcelain painting before moving to canvas.
Jean and his father rarely saw eye to eye, and while the son’s films would eventually prove themselves to be more compelling and existentially inquisitive than the paintings of his father, his work drew on their tumultuous relationship. Perhaps all creativity is, in some way, created in the crucible of family tension. Perhaps it comes from the desire to define oneself in opposition to one’s family while also living up to its expectations. Perhaps what we try to escape is invariably what defines us.
At the Musée d’Orsay in Paris—and, earlier, at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia—an exhibition called “Renoir Father and Son: Painting and Cinema” attempts to divine the secrets of their creative dynamic, although it mostly displays their similarities. It is true that, on the surface, the father’s paintings and the son’s films had numerous connections. Jean shot frequently in the South of France, especially in Cagnes-sur-Mer, and sometimes in Montmartre, where the elder Renoir tended to paint. Jean was also one of the first filmmakers to normalize shooting outdoors, taking after his father, who had been a pioneer of painting en plein air. They shared source material, too: both had a penchant for the novelist Émile Zola. Both were interested in questions of Realism and, in Jean’s case especially, the role of memory.
But the apparent similarities between the two Renoirs can be misleading. Often, what look to be resemblances are actually more devious acts of appropriation. Take, for instance, Andrée Heuschling, whom Pierre-Auguste met while she was a young girl modeling in Nice at the School of Decorative Arts. Heuschling became one of the elder Renoir’s main models, appearing in several of his seminal paintings, such as Les baigneuses (1918–19). He took particular pleasure in her company, especially as he went through a rough patch near the end of his life. His wife, Aline Charigot, had recently passed, World War I had just started, and his health was in steep decline. He nicknamed Heuschling “Dédée,” and she became not only one of his most important models but also, for a time, his central confidante. Jean knew of this intimacy and, just weeks after his father died, he proposed marriage to Heuschling. He gave her the lead role in his film Backbiters, encouraged her to change her name to Catherine Hessling to become a more marketable star, and, ultimately, put her into four more of his films. He made her his muse but also his wife, his partner, his lover. Jean had found a way to give her more than his father could. She had been prominent in Pierre-Auguste’s paintings and kept him company in dire times. Jean, taking her as wife and muse, co-opted his father’s source both of inspiration and of intimacy.
Indeed, Jean took freely from his father—in themes, in source materials, even in the people with whom he was close. But where Renoir père largely celebrated and embraced the leisurely life of the bourgeoisie, Renoir fils questioned, parodied, even disparaged it. Jean’s film A Day in the Country was one of his most finely tuned repudiations of his father’s honey-soaked values. The movie, which was based on the short story of the same name by Guy de Maupassant, depicted a bourgeois Parisian family who spend a day in the countryside, where a pair of boatmen seduce the mother and daughter. Shooting the film in Marlotte—where his father had often painted—and filming mostly at magic hour—so that golden light drenched the lakes and the grass as in many of his father’s paintings—Jean created a movie that borrowed the surface-level aesthetic of his father’s work while perverting its underlying message. At one point in the movie, the daughter looks to her mother and asks, “Did you feel a sort of tenderness toward the grass, the water, the trees?” She says this sincerely, but it comes across as anything but: the supposed aristocratic tenderness toward the natural world had always been a canard to Jean, who saw it as a place in which humans acted on their darker, lustier desires while merely dressing with decorum.
Near the end of his life, Jean became more aware of how much of his self had been constructed in opposition to his father. “I have spent my life trying to determine the extent of the influence of my father upon me,” he wrote. “I did my utmost to escape from it, to dwell upon those when my mind was filled with the precepts I thought I had gleaned from him.” It seemed to slowly dawn on him that to rebel against his father was still to enter into a dialogue with him. To reject something or someone is to give it power—to admit that it merits rejection at all. “If certain landscapes, certain costumes, bring to mind my father’s paintings, it’s for two reasons,” Jean wrote: “First, because it 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.”
He rarely admitted it so explicitly, but Jean had been hurt by his father’s coldness toward him as a child. They got to know each other a little better during World War I, when Jean, who had enlisted in the French army, returned to their home in Montmartre after having been shot in the leg. A picture taken in 1916 by Pierre Bonnard, the painter and a friend of the family, shows Pierre-Auguste, then in his mid-seventies, sitting in a wheelchair, while Jean, looking spry in his early twenties, sits behind him, clad in his military uniform. Pierre-Auguste’s wife had just died (he would die only three years later), and, in this photo, he looks regretful, as though, now left with so little, he mourned the lack of the filial relationship he could have had. Jean, however, looks energized. Even with his injury, he appears keen to move on, to recover and to continue with his life. In the late fifties, many years after his father died, Jean left for the United States, never to return to France. He felt the time had finally come to separate himself once and for all. “For our peace of mind,” Jean wrote, “we must try to escape from the spell of memories. Our salvation lies in plunging resolutely into the hell of the new world.”
Of course, the irony for the Renoirs—as for all parents and children—is that Pierre-Auguste, who watched his son grow up from behind his canvas, was able to define Jean, while Jean could only respond and react. No matter how much Jean rejected him, Pierre-Auguste had the upper hand: he had been there first. No matter how wrong he might have been, his ideas were the originals; Jean’s, even in opposition, were inevitably derivations. “We are in a period of searchers,” the elder Renoir once said, “rather than of creators.” The past always has the advantage.
Cody Delistraty is a writer and critic in Paris and New York.