A Gentle Softness

Gabrielle et Jean, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, c1895

Gabrielle et Jean, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, approx. 1895

It’s a soft picture of a gentle, intimate moment. Nurse and child are playing together. Their faces are softly lit and softly colored.

She smiles as she holds and moves a toy cow; he smiles, copying her movement with the figure he holds. Cow and figure seem to melt into the surface below them. A wisp of her hair falls, curving, over one eye and the rest of her long hair seems to be trying to escape its confinement. His shorter hair is coiled over his collar and lies in short wisps along his forehead. There are blue shadows on their fair skin and pink brings cheeks, chins and mouths to life. Their clothing is softly moulded around their bodies.

All the edges are soft – there is nothing hard to disturb or distract. Behind the two the colors on the wallpaper flow together, suggesting flowers. The walls around them meet gently and we can barely see the edges of the table they are playing on.

Nurse and child are the focus, the most fully realized. Lights and shadows shape and round them, bringing them to life. Everything else is flat – the walls and table are literally flat surfaces.

The child is Jean, son of the French artist Pierre Auguste Renoir. The young woman is Gabrielle Renard, a distant cousin brought in to help in the household. The scene reflects a cosy intimacy, seen and shared.

The painting had its roots in Renoir’s varied and eclectic mix of influences and learning. He began as a painter of designs on fine porcelain when he was fourteen, then found work painting hangings and decorations on fans when the company went out of business. Meantime he learned by studying the work of French artists on exhibit at the Louvre, and in 1860 he was given permission to copy there.

He began formal studies at the art school in Paris in 1861, when he was about twenty-one, and began to show his work at the Paris Salon a couple of years later. Then the Franco-Prussian War disrupted life in France, for him as for so many others. It was not until he showed his work in the first Impressionist exhibition some ten years later that his ability and talent were recognized.

Less than ten years after that Renoir broke away from the Impressionists to follow his own path. A trip to Italy and study of the great masters there led him to apply a more formal, more classical approach to his work, and he returned to showing his work at the Salon.

Then in the 1890s his marriage and the growth of his family shifted the focus of his work closer to home. His paintings became softer, his techniques closer to those he had learned and used when he was younger.

But now you can feel and see a comfort with his work, as there was in his life. This painting, like his family, is a product of his maturity.

Time had softened his outlook, changed his viewpoint and allowed him to build on all he had learned. Which allowed him to paint us this warm and gentle picture.


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