Renoir: Liberating Women

Renoir: Reclining Nude

Renoir: Reclining Nude

Pierre-Auguste Renoir‘s work served as part of the Impressionist movement that would forever change the art world. His painting did not simply challenge convention via style, but also through content.  The presentation of women in art had a strict tradition, one that Renoir embraced early in his career, but as he developed his style, Renoir would come to eventually challenge such traditions, presenting women in a manner that both celebrated their form, and challenged assumed gender roles while uplifting the female form and womankind.

 

 

Diana (left) and After the Bath.

Diana (left) and After the Bath.

In a work titled Diana, we see Renoir embrace tradition.  It was common practice at the time for painters to portray nudes in a classical or historical context.  In Diana, Renoir paints a beautiful female nude. To contextualize the piece, he adds a bow and the corpse of a felled doe: a clear reference to the Diana of Grecian myth, goddess of the hunt.  After Renoir became a master of the female nude, he purged classical and historical allusions from his paintings.  After the Bath is one of Renoir’s most beautiful paintings.  In it, a nude woman is drying herself after having taken a bath in a river or pond.  Absent is the bow and corpse of a deer.  There are no Grecian or Roman goddesses and no grand narrative borrowed from the annals of history is present.  It is simply a woman immersed in the natural world.

 

Renoir: Sleeping Bather

Renoir: Sleeping Bather

Of course, Renoir came up with a plethora of female nudes.  Paintings like: Bather With Loose Blonde Hair, Bathers in the Forest, Seated Bather in a Landscape, Reclining Nude, Bather and Nude (among many others), all feature female nudes in a natural setting.  The immersion of the female form into nature is a theme in all these works.  Early in his career, Renoir completed many society paintings.  In these works, we see women fully clothed, and often indoors (though Luncheon at the Boating Party and Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette are famous examples of Renoir taking these figures outdoors).  These nudes represent a liberation of sorts from the human constructs placed on women.  There are no corsets or hoop-skirt frames to create false shapes of the female form, and there are no clothes meant to appease the male gaze.  The natural beauty of these women is discovered by Renoir in these paintings, and when juxtaposed with his earlier society paintings, we see how truly beautiful the female form is when human constructs are stripped away and nature is left alone.  The false forms created by corsets and hoop-skirt frames are deleted, and in their place the natural female form is uplifted.  Hence, it is doubly fitting that most of Renoir’s nudes take place outdoors.  The women in these paintings are truly at one with the natural world, also lending an ecocritical reading to these works.  Women need not be nude to be at one with nature, however.  In Girl with Daisies, Renoir presents a girl sitting outdoors with a collection of daisies in her hand.  Her bosom is almost entirely exposed as her top seems to slip off her shoulder.  The human construct of clothes seems to fail her and she is drawn to nature, as represented by the surrounding landscape and by the daisies in her hand.

 

Renoir: Girl with Daisies

Renoir: Girl with Daisies

Even when presenting the female form indoors, Renoir tended to include elements of nature.  In Sleeping Girl with Cat, Renoir paints the portrait of a young girl with a cat.  In the painting, one of the straps of the girl’s top has fallen over her shoulder.  This can be a little unsettling, as the girl appears to be quite young, and such exposure may seem overtly sexual to some.  Exposing the girl’s shoulder can be suggestive, but it does not have strictly a sexual reading.  It can also be seen as a failure of the constructs of the human world, much like  in Girl with Daisies.  The top fails to provide comfort and does not perform its intended purpose, exposing the young girl as she sleeps. With the failure of man-made constraints, she inches closer to her natural state of nudity.  The natural world encroaches upon the scene in the form of a cat, demonstrating the fundamental connectedness between nature and the human world, or at the very least, between nature and womankind.

 

Renoir: The Theatre Box.

Renoir: The Theatre Box.

Renoir did not simply challenge social conventions of femininity via nudes.  Even in his society paintings, we see many instances in which Renoir uplifts womankind.  In At the Theatre and The Theatre Box, Renoir portrays women in theatre loges, presumably at a play or an opera.  In the latter, the female subject is looking straight at the viewer whilst her male companion looks elsewhere.  This tactic, which suggests an autonomy present in these women, was commonly employed by Berthe Morisot.  It is the female gaze which is key in these paintings, not the traditional male gaze.  These works also take the portrait outside of the domestic sphere.  Women were often painted at home in simple poses, and though Renoir did many such paintings, he also took these women outside of the domestic sphere.  In At the Theatre andThe Theatre Box in particular, they are engaging in theatre and we can assume have an appreciation for the arts, something thought to belong exclusively to the male realm by those who embrace the patriarchal mindset.  These women are not confined to such prescribed attitudes any more than they confined to the domestic sphere.

 

 

Renoir: Sleeping Girl with Cat

Renoir: Sleeping Girl with Cat

Browsing through Renoir’s works though, it is clear that many of the women whose portrait he painted were painted in the context of the domestic sphere.  Even in these instances, though, Renoir found many ways to challenged accepted gender roles.  Not only does Renoir often incorporate animals in a number of paintings, allowing for elements of the natural world to enter the domestic sphere (Sleeping Girl With Cat, Donna con gatto and Julie Manet With Cat all feature a young girls with a cat, while Porträt der Frau Charpentier und ihre Kinder is a family portrait featuring a dog, placing the natural world on a parity terms with the matriarch’s children), but he also places women, even young girls, in roles where they adopt roles typically attributed to the masculine realm.  While it is true that paintings like Lise Sewing and Jean Renoir Sewing indulge in patriarchal stereotypes, such prescribed conventions are cast aside in paintings like: Porträt von Jean und Geneviève Caillebotte, The Reading and Young Girls Reading.  In these works Renoir depict several pairs of young women reading.  The reading of literature

Renoir: Reading Couple

Renoir: Reading Couple

and the appreciation of it was considered to be something belonging to the masculine sphere in patriarchal societies.  Though young women were sometimes criticized for wasting their time on popular novels, we do not see any elements of satire in these paintings that would suggest this is Renoir’s approach.  Instead we see communal readings where women share in their love for literature.  Lesendes Mädchen and Woman Reading, among others, depict solitary women reading.  In all such instances the women posing for the portrait are doing something other than simply posing for the male gaze. They are unconcerned with the men who might be looking at them and are instead consumed by their own desire to learn and embrace literature, a sharp contrast from typical portraits which would see women posing in their finest outfits that they might be suited for viewings.  In Reading Couple, Renoir furthers this casting aside of the male gaze.  The painting features a couple: man and woman.  The man seems enamoured with the woman, but she is in complete ignorance of his affections.  Her attention is turned instead to a book.  The man is following her lead and gazing on the pages.  Here we see the ennobling effect of love as the woman inspires the man to read literature.  We also see that she is taking the lead and prioritizes her own wants and desires above that of her presumed suitor; a strong portrait of a woman indeed!

 

Renoir: La Lecon de Piano

Renoir: La Lecon de Piano

Woman at Piano, Two Girls at the Piano, La Lecon de Piano and Yvonne et Christine Lerolle au Piano each feature a reading of a different type.  In each painting we see one or two women seated at a piano reading sheet music and playing the piano.  While it was common for aristocratic women to indulge in recreational artistic hobbies, be that sketching or playing an instrument, it is not common to see such activities in portraits.  There are also activities which, while indulged by women, were performed professionally almost exclusively by men. In making the female musician the subject of the painting, Renoir again rejects the conventions of posing in the domestic sphere for a portrait and demonstrates that the female musician is one worthy of being the subject of a painting, suggesting an equality between male and female musicians, or at the very least suggesting that the female musician is one who warrants notarization by artists like Renoir.

 

Renoir: Guitar Lesson

Renoir: Guitar Lesson

The piano is an instrument that works in concert with feminine roles as they are prescribed by patriarchy.  The guitar, however, is not.  In playing the guitar, one develops callouses on their fingertips, making hard and brittle that which, in a woman (by patriarchal standards at least) is supposed to be soft.  It is curious then that Renoir, aside from painting female pianists, also painted female guitar players.  The Guitar Player, Young Spanish Woman with a Guitar, and Woman With a Guitar all feature female subjects at work with a guitar.  These women then have forgone the expectation that their skin is to be soft for their male suitors and have instead placed their desire to create music ahead of their roles as monuments of desire for male consumers of ‘love’.  Guitar Lesson is perhaps even more empowering in that it shows a matriarch teaching her daughter to play.  In this scene there are two things at work.  The music teacher is female here, which was not common.  It was men who played music professionally, and so an aristocratic family would be expected to hire a tutor to teach their children.  Here, though, a woman has replaced that masculine role.  It is interesting also because the presumed mother is passing her lessons down to her daughter and is teaching her daughter that there are other ways to define herself than via a man.  This pupil is learning, not how to woo a husband, but how to play a guitar and create on her own terms without the aid of a man.  It will be music that she births, and not a child, but it is offspring for which she does not need a man to produce.

 

Renoir: Boating on the Seine

Renoir: Boating on the Seine

Renoir also portrays women as independent in social settings.  In Boating on the Seine, Renoir paints two women sharing a boat and rowing on the river.  It would have been expect that the women were accompanied on a boat by a male companion who would of course be expected to perform the heavy rowing.  In this painting though, there are two women in the boat and an utter absence of men.  Renoir suggests that these women are independent and strong enough to row themselves and do no need men to enjoy the scene.  The same can be said of the paintings Woman in Boat and Red Boat and such an approach would be imitated by Claude Monet in The Blue Row Boat.  Women, for Renoir, were not dependent on men, even in settings where physical strength and exertion was required.

 

Renoir: Seated Bather

Renoir: Seated Bather

It is clear in looking through Renoir’s oeuvre that he had an insatiable love for women, but it is also clear that this love and appreciation for women extend beyond their bodies and embraced their minds, manifest in their reading, and passions, manifest via their love of music among other things.  Looking at what is absent from Renoir’s work, we get an even better understanding.  In the female nudes, there is an absence of historical or classical contexts, suggesting that the female form alone is worthy of celebration and that there is no classical or historical pretense required to celebrate the female form.  Also absent is the male nude.  While Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres was famous for painting exquisite female nudes, he also painted male nudes.  Males nudes are entirely absent from Renoir’s oeuvre though, suggesting that he thought the female form was superior to the male form and more worthy of being the subject of art.  Again though, it is not solely the female body which Renoir celebrates.  He celebrates motherhood in a great many paintings (fitting within patriarchal norms), but he also celebrates the female reader and female musicians, as well as the female theatre goer.  He plucks women from the domestic sphere and empowers them, and even the women who sit comfortably within the domestic sphere challenge patriarchal norms.  Renoir’s women are women who do not need men to be happy, but rather find happiness on their own terms.  His presentation of women was progressive and challenged viewers to look at women outside of the scope of roles prescribed by patriarchy and in turn Renoir’s oeuvre lends itself to a feminist reading, even if it is from a hyper-heterosexual-male perspective.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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