The Painter of Modern Life: Renoir and the Spirit of Baudelaire

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The Painter of Modern Life: Renoir and the Spirit of Baudelaire
During the last third of the 19th century, Baron Haussmann’s modernization of Paris was well underway. The subjects of modernity and progress consumed the minds of avant-garde writers and painters. Poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) used modernity as his creed. His rallying cry for artists to “be of their time” would greatly affect the Impressionist painters. Modernity would soon be represented on the canvases of Impressionists who embraced the theme of la vie moderne. Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) shared Baudelaire’s philosophy of capturing the fleeting moment. His masterpiece, The Luncheon of the Boating Party, reveals that Renoir shared Baudelaire’s values of modernity, leisure, fashion and the acceptance of all classes. The industrialization of Paris inspired Baudelaire. Before 1848, impeded streets and narrow bridges characterized the city. Under the auspices of Emperor Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann made plans for grand boulevards to strike through the core of Paris. By the 1870s, hundreds of kilometers of old streets had been altered and widened. Baudelaire’s writings reveal his excitement of the Paris crowds and his ability to move anonymously among them as a flâneur. He was a dedicated observer of the new Parisian streets. Baudelaire’s writings were the catalyst that launched the movement toward modern art. In 1846, Baudelaire published his landmark review of the Paris Salon with his call to artists to “be of their time,” and to create art that interacted with the present world, rather than that which emulated the past. Baudelaire’s rhetoric was largely ignored; it was his later 1863 essay, The Painter of Modern Life that had a tangible impact on the Parisian art world. The Painter of Modern Life was an essay published in Le Figaro. Baudelaire urged artists to cast aside historical subjects and plunge into the present day, to embrace the new modernity. Overall, he believed that an artist should represent their time, and be able to create an enduring work of art from a fleeting look at modern life. To capture that passing moment, a painter with the characteristics of a flâneur was needed. Baudelaire’s ideal flâneur was a passionate observer of life, but also a man of leisure, enjoying himself, but missing nothing. By the 1880s, Impressionist artists had answered Baudelaire’s plea for modernity and were devoted to portraying contemporary life. However, by this time, Baudelaire was long dead and the social realism found in Paris had shifted to the suburbs. Parisians thirsted for leisure. Impressionism had, up until now, aligned itself with the modern urban culture of café concerts, cabarets, and vaudeville. However, with the development of railways, the focus fell on the leisure activities in the banlieue – swimming and boating. Baudelaire likely would have appreciated the transient moment represented in Auguste Renoir’s 1880-81 exploration of leisure in suburban Paris. The Luncheon of the Boating Party depicted a popular weekend destination for leisure-seeking Parisians – the riverside suburb of Chatou. Parisians would take a train to suburban Île Saint Martin to take advantage of the swimming and boating the Seine offered alongside the Restaurant Fournaise. Renoir wanted to paint aspects of la vie moderne but he shunned the ugliness of industrial progress. He wanted to portray the beauty of a location while capturing the essence of leisure and relaxation. The working class artist sought to create the warm, social harmonies that he feared were disappearing amid the cold decadence of urban Paris. He succeeded in this with his Luncheon of the Boating Party. Renoir depicted a group of holidaymakers at the restaurant and boating establishment of the Fournaise family. Renoir envisaged boating as the perfect expression of leisure in the modern life of the middle class. Boating, swimming, and picnicking, allowed for the inhibition, freedom, and self-indulgence necessary for an escape from the grind of the city. Sailboats and canots in the Seine are seen in the far left of the painting. The strong colors and textures and the liberated pleasure-seeking that Renoir painted were adamantly modern. Renoir’s luncheon at the guinguette of the Fournaise family shaped an Eden of social harmony. It was on the terrace of the Restaurant Fournaise where Renoir arranged 14 friends, models, and colleagues from a wide range of classes and occupations to pose for his painting. Renoir’s models included artist and patron Gustave Caillebotte, the son and daughter of the owner of the establishment, an editor, a seamstress, a journalist, an actress and a model who was one step away from prostitution. Baudelaire would have appreciated the variety of models Renoir included and the fact that he painted celebrities and working women equally.  In this setting, we see the detritus of a convivial meal: beer glasses, wine glasses, grapes from a fruit bowl, swizzle sticks, discarded lemon slices, used napkins, a keg of brandy, and wine bottles at various levels of consumption. A wide range of male and female clothing and accessories are worn. The model who would one day be Madame Renoir  brought her lap dog. In this regard, Renoir is the silent flâneur observing every detail. Although this painting was posed over several weeks, the impression that it is but a fleeting moment is very successful. At the Concert (Box at the Opera), Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1880. Oil, canvas….

Lead photo credit : The Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880 - 1881. Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Image credit: Public domain. WikiArt

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A freelance writer and amateur historian, Hazel knew she wanted to focus on the lives of French artists and femme fatales after an epiphany at the Musée d'Orsay. A life-long learner, she is a recent graduate of Art History from the University of Toronto. Now she is searching for a real-life art history mystery to solve.


  • Michael James
    2019-07-25 23:38:53
    Michael James
    An interesting read. Don't take this as criticism but I think you only fleetingly captured the anomalous relationship to modernisation that these "modernists" had. Baudelaire had a furious hatred of Haussmann and his modernisation of Paris which came out in his Fleurs du Mal which was all about decadence; below is an extract from the Wiki entry on Baudelaire, and for which the poet was taken to court, fined and had several parts of the work banned (mostly for sexual libertinism). Tableaux Parisiens (Parisian Scenes) Baudelaire's section Tableaux Parisiens, added in the second edition (1861), is considered one of the most formidable criticisms of 19th-century French modernity. This section contains 18 poems, most of which were written during Haussmann's renovation of Paris. Together, the poems in Tableaux Parisiens act as 24-hour cycle of Paris, starting with the second poem Le Soleil (The Sun) and ending with the second to last poem Le Crépuscule du Matin (Morning Twilight). The poems featured in this cycle of Paris all deal with the feelings of anonymity and estrangement from a newly modernized city. Baudelaire is critical of the clean and geometrically laid out streets of Paris which alienate the unsung anti-heroes of Paris who serve as inspiration for the poet: the beggars, the blind, the industrial worker, the gambler, the prostitute, the old and the victim of imperialism. These characters whom Baudelaire once praised as the backbone of Paris are now eulogized in his nostalgic poems. For Baudelaire, the city has been transformed into an anthill of identical bourgeois that reflect the new identical structures that litter a Paris he once called home but can now no longer recognize.[2][3] Another decade or two on and the glitterati were at it again, complaining bitterly about the Tour Eiffel (1889). And of course all the transformations of Mitterrand's Grands Projets (and earlier, like Les Halles etc). I recently read Louis Chevalier's The Assassination of Paris and found it to be fairly embarrassing and not a good epitaph to that 'thinker's' legacy; it was translated by David Jordan who had to perform diplomatic delicacies in his foreword. One can begin to understand why politicians or city planners ignore what the artists of the day, not to mention the hoi polloi, complain about, for example when almost exactly a century after Haussmann, Pompidou's planned to transform the Montparnasse district into a high-rise business district. In that particular case, most, if not all, can agree that Paris dodged a bullet and only by chance, with the premature death of Pompidou and the succession of a more conservative Giscard d'Estaing. Marvelling at Paris one can think it a minor miracle of happenstance that it survived and turned out as it did; or alternatively that it is somehow--no less miraculously--self-correcting. This Sunday (28 July) I'll be watching the final of the Tour de France expecting to see, via the rare helicopter views, the glorious Voie Triomphale, the product of almost 5 centuries of planning and extension, the next phase being westwards from Grande Arche La Defense to Nanterre. I suppose Baudelaire, de Maupassant, Chevalier and many today may lament the intrusion of La Defense and its towers on the Voie Triomphale, yet despite its sometimes depressingly mediocre architecture in isolated structures, in ensemble it does provide a magnificence backdrop in those foreshortened shots of the Eiffel Tower, especially at dusk! Perhaps fittingly, as Europe's largest financial district, it represents a kind of decadence that appears to be afflicting the modern world that might justify a latterday Baudelaire! Those thrusting towers may well be our fleurs du mal.