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Renoir, My Father (1962)

by Jean Renoir

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440340,814 (3.98)2
In this delightful memoir, Jean Renoir, tells the life story of his father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the great impressionist painter. Recounting Pierre-Auguste's extraordinary career, beginning as a painter of fans and porcelain, recording the rules of thumb by which he worked, and capturing his unpretentious and wonderfully engaging talk and personality, Jean Renoir's book is both a wonderful double portrait of father and son and the best book that has been written about Renoir and his paintings.… (more)
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    Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret (davidcla)
    davidcla: Pleasant to see how these read in tandem (and with In Search of Lost Time).
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Renoir, My Father - Jean Renoir
4 stars

“Among seekers of truth, painters perhaps come closest to discovering the secret of the balance of forces of the universe, and hence of man's fulfillment.”

I started this memoir/biography in November of last year. I was on the east coast for a family wedding, with several days to myself in Washington. I went to the Phillips Gallery to see their Renoir exhibit. This book was the perfect enrichment both before and after that experience.

The filmmaker, Jean Renoir, wrote to his publisher about his intentions for this book in 1953, “I would like to attempt to give form to my recollections of the conversations I had with my father mostly at the end of his life.” I’m not certain how much this book can be said to give ‘form’. It is roughly chronological, but wanders in time and topic as a conversation might. Sometimes, I was felt that Jean Renoir was attributing his own opinions and esthetic to his father. Maybe, it is impossible to separate one from the other. Without doubt, this book is an intensely personal look at the genius of an incredibly talented family.

This was a book that I could not read quickly. Whenever I sat down with it, I found myself diverted into internet searches for famous names, historical events, and many, many, images of paintings that I would love to see. The Phillips exhibit put many of Renoir’s most famous works in one place, which made reading about them so much more interesting. The book was more memoir than biography, and was filled with a great deal of famous name dropping. I doubt I will retain much of the details, but I appreciate the insight it gave to understanding Renoir’s work (beyond, ‘that’s such a pretty painting’).

“The world of Renoir is a single entity. The red of the poppy determines the pose of the young woman with the umbrella. The blue of the sky harmonizes with the sheepskin the young shepherd wears. His pictures are demonstrations of over-all unity. ....
Renoir believed in the Chinese legend that a mandarin can be killed at a distance by an unconsciously lethal gesture made in Paris.”


Jean Renoir wrote, in middle age, his memories of conversations with his crippled father. Jean was recovering from wounds received in the trenches of WW1. His father was slowly and painfully dying of rheumatoid arthritis. The loosely connected anecdotes are nostalgic and without bitterness. He has nothing but admiration and love for his parents. Rose colored glasses, maybe, but it made for easy reading.

“His nudes and his roses declared to men of this century, already deep in their task of destruction, the stability of the eternal balance of nature.”

I discovered that this book was the inspiration for the beautiful, 2012 French film, Renoir. It won several awards. I recommend it along with this enjoyable memoir, and a trip to see Luncheon of the Boating Party at the Phillips Gallery in Washington, D.C. ( )
1 vote msjudy | Jan 22, 2018 |
This portrait of Auguste Renoir by his filmmaker son Jean has the advantage that Jean conjures up intimate memories and everyday details about Renoir that no other biographer could. He starts off strong and is good at setting the stage historically, describing the progress in the world over the course of Renoir’s life, and the changing political situation in 19th century France. I was also fascinated by his inclusion of several full newspaper reviews of the exhibition in 1874 that gave the group the name ‘Impressionists’; the comments vilifying their work are truly shocking and a caution to anyone who would view art of a type they had never seen before and not the norm and demean it. Lastly, his description of Renoir’s severe rheumatoid arthritis and the difficulty that presented to his painting over the last twenty years of his life was simultaneously dignified and poignant.

On the other hand, Jean’s authorship has disadvantages: the details become mundane, there is little structure and as he draws on all sorts of memories of childhood, it becomes unfocused (though one could I suppose say he creates an impressionist painting here, haha), and lastly, Renoir himself comes across as a crotchety old man as Jean recalls all of his varied opinions on the people and world around him. Examples abound:

“The artist who uses the least of what is called imagination will be the greatest.”

“I like women best when they don’t know how to read; and when they wipe their baby’s behind themselves.”

“He contended that the lack of physical exercise – ‘and the best exercise for a woman is to kneel down and scrub the floor, light fires or do the washing: their bellies need movement of that sort’ – was going to produce girls incapable of enjoying sexual intercourse to the full. … ‘There’s a risk that love-making, even the most normal, may become a kind of masturbation.’”

“A great many geniuses have been syphilitic. Perhaps I ought to wish you had caught that disease.”

“He argued, for instance, that one should accept the caste system of the Hindus, which they had practiced for four thousand years.”

“It’s all Pasteur’s fault. With his vaccine, and all the children who have been saved by it, this planet is getting dangerously overpopulated. Perhaps God has sent us pederasty to keep things in balance.” (this in a rant equating homosexuality with pedophilia :(

“For my father, the gramophone presented another danger to our civilization.”

To a father: “If your daughter only had a little of the whore about her, she would be an extraordinary singer.”

And on and on. Oh, and he also proclaims that Brie is the king of cheese, when everyone knows it’s Parmigiano-Reggiano. That’s minus half a star right there. (kidding, I would expect nothing less from a Parisian) Seriously, the book would have been better if the raw material - the childhood memories and family history Jean had access to - had been provided to a better writer, who could have edited it down (this book is too long!), and balanced it out with objective information from other sources.

I did like to see the color plates of about 16 of his works (as well as the black and white photos of him and his family), but with one or two exceptions, thought the selection could have been much better. It seems to me it was skewed too much towards showing family members or acquaintances in his paintings.

If you’re a huge Renoir fan, this book is probably worth reading; otherwise, I think it will be hit and miss, and you’d be better off starting with the fictionalized biographies of other artists. Lust For Life comes to mind. ( )
2 vote gbill | Nov 21, 2014 |
Good copy in Fair DJ. Book Club Edition
  Hawken04 | Nov 17, 2012 |
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In April 1915 a Bavarian sharpshooter did me the favor of putting a bullet through my leg.
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In this delightful memoir, Jean Renoir, tells the life story of his father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the great impressionist painter. Recounting Pierre-Auguste's extraordinary career, beginning as a painter of fans and porcelain, recording the rules of thumb by which he worked, and capturing his unpretentious and wonderfully engaging talk and personality, Jean Renoir's book is both a wonderful double portrait of father and son and the best book that has been written about Renoir and his paintings.

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