Give me a slice of Francis Bacon or even Salvador Dali’s warped timepieces. But Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s French impressionism, with all its blurry edges and dreamy soft-focus, just doesn’t float my boat.
However, during a week spent around l’Aube in the Champagne region I find myself in Essoyes where France’s biggest new attraction, Renoir’s house, has just opened to the public for the first time since his death in 1919.
Essoyes is insanely pretty. The river Ource with its … umm … ‘blurry edges and dreamy soft-focus’, languidly sashays around centuries-old stone cottages, among them Renoir’s, purchased in 1896. By then he’d married one of his life-models, fresh-faced Aline Charigot (the girl kissing the dog in his inimitable Luncheon of the Boating Party). Renoir painted prolifically here until 1914, when ill-health forced him to head south, seeking warmer climates. The house stayed in the family until the commune of Essoyes purchased it from his great-granddaughter, Sophie Renoir, in 2012 and began renovation for public viewing.
The handsome three-storey house hardly bleats poverty. “He paid 4,000 francs for it after selling Young Girls at the Piano for the same amount. That was a worker’s wage for 10 years,” explains local guide Coralie Delauné.
Naturally, I braced myself for a fusty interior of frayed paraphernalia squirrelled away in glass cabinets. But I was wrong. Instead the interior recreates a fictitious but immaculately researched snapshot of everyday domesticity shared with children, Jean, Pierre and Claude — it looks as if the family dropped whatever they were doing in the early 20th-century, got up, and left.
The living room encapsulates endearing chaos: an unfinished painting on an easel, period toys strewn across a rug covering the wooden floor, a half-finished glass of sherry on the sideboard, sheet music open on the piano. Likewise the kitchen bears the same microscopically thought out lived-in detail — from spilt hazelnuts balanced on a table, to a bouquet of flowers inspired by a Renoir painting.
“There were no photographs from the original interior so the restoration is inspired by written memoirs, his paintings and antiques from that era,” says Coralie.
Upstairs, Renoir had his own bedroom. Possibly because he was in the doghouse with Aline for forever suggesting voluptuous local, Gabrielle Renard, who posed for him over 200 times, often nude, as his ‘favourite model’. Nearby the children’s bedroom is messy with glued-to-the-floor marbles, rock collections and toy soldiers, all of which Jean Renoir talked about playing with in his memoirs.
But the Champagne moment is a security-enhanced room hosting what will be a rolling exhibition of on-loan Renoir masterpieces. With only two paintings displayed it’s hardly a retrospective, and unlike a museum gallery where crowds jostle around artistic stardom, I find myself utterly alone with Woman with a Mirror, loaned from Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen. After dismissing a Machiavellian thought this could be my pension if I did a runner with it, a damascene conversion occurs. There are no wishy-washy colours here but a kaleidoscopically bold multi-coloured explosion in the painting’s background that concentrates the intensity of the central heroine, a buxom redhead gazing into a hand mirror. The blurred edges have gone. Her crystal-clear features are confident and masterfully expressive in detail.
“He didn’t like being pigeonholed as an impressionist. His later career in the 1890s is so different with his use of strong colours and the way he expressed his skills as a great artist,” interprets Coralie.
In his small garden studio there’s a minute-long cinematic clip of Renoir painting near the end of his life. His rheumatoid arthritis is so bad a paintbrush is taped to his crippled hand. His brushstrokes dart with the speed of a cobra striking its prey. Amazingly, he painted Woman with a Mirror while in this state around 1915. Quite frankly, I’m blown away. Suddenly, Dali’s clocks don’t seem so interesting.