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. Read More