Monday, July 14, 2014

Aline Charigot Renoir

Detail from Luncheon of the Boating Party
Pierre-Auguste Renoir met his wife, Aline Charigot, in 1881 in Paris. She was 19, a dressmaker, and he was 40, an impoverished painter, whose work had hung in the first Impressionist exhibition. All of my knowledge of Aline Renoir comes from the wonderful book Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir, first published in English in 1962. Almost nowhere else have I found such a clear picture of the wholeness of a consciously-created family. It was due in great part to Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s ideas, but in Aline he found the perfect partner.

Aline Charigot had grown up in Essoyes, near Burgundy. Renoir admired her skill. “She had hands that could do things,” he told his son. She is to be seen in a number of Renoir’s pictures. Jean Renoir writes, “From the moment he took up a brush to paint, perhaps even earlier … Renoir was painting the portrait of Aline Charigot.” Since Renoir’s time, his son asserts, the world has seen an influx of little round, plump beings with beautiful red cheeks.

Aline wanted to have children, which didn’t exactly fit in with the requirements of a man who had devoted himself to painting. Due to fears that he could not support her, and the travel he was doing for his work, they did not marry until 1890. But in the end Renoir decided life without Aline would not be complete. “She gave me the time to think,” Renoir told his son. “She kept an atmosphere of activity around me, exactly suited to my needs and concerns.”

In the early years in Paris, the Renoirs gave little dinners for their artist friends serving bouillabaisse or chicken saute with mushrooms; if money was scarce, pot-au-feu. No matter how hard times were, Aline always managed to receive her husband’s friends. Her cooking was quick, uncomplicated, definite and orderly. “She fitted in well with Renoir’s rule of making plenty out of little. ‘Use only the best, but frugally.’”

“By confining her activities to what she knew best, she won the admiration and respect of all who met her.” Jean Renoir writes that one evening at the opening of an exhibition, Degas noticed the simple little dress Aline was wearing and said to Renoir: “Your wife looks like a queen surrounded by mountbanks.”

Aline did not spoil her children. “It’s much easier to let them have their way, but it makes life harder for them later on,” she said. When Jean Renoir was growing up, the Renoirs took a house in Essoyes for the summer holidays, a wine-growing region with vaulted cellars hewn out of rock where the Renoirs would get pitchers of wine. Aline’s talent for management was very important as the household grew larger and she herself became less active. When the Renoir’s last house in Cagnes was purchased, she remained a “peasant to her fingertips,” he son writes, tending olive and orange trees, planting vegetable gardens and vineyards.

Because it was so important to him, Aline organized the household around Renoir’s work. In looking at it so long, she grew to love and understand his painting. He thought that “profound, dramatic or passionate concerns set the seal of the transient on face and body, whereas … art is concerned only with the eternal.” Renoir was “always discovering and rediscovering the world at every instant of his existence, with every breath of fresh air he drew. Whether he painted the same girl or the same bunch of grapes a hundred times, each occasion was a marvelous revelation to him.” Jean Renoir writes: “In his world mind is liberated from matter, not by ignoring it but by penetrating it. The blossom of the linden-tree and the bee sipping the honey from it follow the same rhythm as the blood circulating under the skin of the young girl sitting on the grass … The world is one.”

Though we don’t get to live quite like French peasants, Don and I certainly have their tastes.  And we do, as best exemplified by the Renoirs, prefer the real to the romantic. Aline Renoir’s emotional intelligence matched Renoir’s commitment to his work and nurtured in her children an equal love of the real world. Her son Jean Renoir is among the world’s great filmmakers, having made The Rules of the Game and The Grand Illusion in the 1930’s. And then he wrote Renoir, My Father! Aline Renoir exemplifies for me the art of living well.

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