2019 marks one hundred years since the death of French impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. I may know little about fine art but even I couldn’t fail to be mesmerised by the magnificent Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881, Le déjeuner des canotiers). The painting, depicting a group of friends relaxing at a restaurant along the river Seine, is perhaps Renoir’s most famous work. 100 years since the death of the painter it now hangs at The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir enjoyed success as a living artist. In his lifetime his work sold for 4000 – 6000 Francs; a vast sum of money at the time. This financial freedom allowed the painter and his family to live a comfortable life. Perhaps the reason he was dubbed painter of happiness. It may be argued that many happy years of Renoir ‘s life were spent in Essoyes. This modest village, which sits 120 miles southeast of Paris, made a lasting impression on its famous resident. A great body of his later work was created here before being transported to Paris.
In celebration of his life, and 30 years spent in Essoyes, the village is honouring Renoir with a programme of events that run throughout the year. Whilst the special roster of events which include photo exhibitions, heritage days and Renoir conferences ends on 30th October 2019, the spirit of Renoir lives on in Essoyes.
A great place to start is the Cultural Centre where you can gather information, purchase books and products about Renoir’s life and his work. A full price ticket which costs €14 (€7 for students, €25 for families of two adults and two children under 18 years) permits you to visit the cultural centre, Renoir’s home, studio and gardens. This is exactly what I did. My odyssey into fine art started with a 20-minute film introducing all that inspired and influenced Renoir: his family, friends and the scenery that accompanied his way of life.
The next stop was the enchanting house that would become Renoir’s home for 30 years. The property, purchased by Renoir and his wife Aline in 1896, was sold to the municipality by Renoir’s great granddaughter Sophie in 2012. A team consisting of painters, prop masters, decorators and set designers set about restoring it in a project that would take four years to complete. The house opened to the public on the 3rd June 2017. The results of this earnest process is an unadulterated immersion in to the private life of Renoir and Aline as they lived and loved in Essoyes.
Starting with the living room full of family treasures, paintings and photographs to the children’s bedroom upstairs with the beds they slept on, tin soldiers they played with and books they read, it’s a remarkable insight into the private life of an ordinary family. Aline’s room (Renoir and his wife did not share a room due to his deteriorating health in later life) with dresser, clothes and perfectly restored wallpaper is as orderly as one might expect. “The wallpaper in the living room is an exact copy of bits of paper found on the walls during the renovations,” my guide tells me.
I walk back out of the front door as we head towards Renoir’s studio. The garden is deliberately pleasant. Whether it was designed to be that way or not it’s utterly pleasing. I imagine that it’s just as beautiful as the leaves begin to fall and colours fade as it is in full bloom. There’s a sense of purpose in every plant, shrub and tree.
Renoir’s studio, built some 10 years after they first moved in, is towards the edge of the garden. It’s a light, airy, square space. The painter’s wheelchair, upon he which he was reliant on to get around, hangs on the ground floor. Upstairs, boxes, paintings and more importantly hand-written notes from Aline are displayed. The notes are instructions to builders; giving us a sense of the life of Renoir as we’ve never known. The studio has received the honour of Maisons des Illustres. Being in this space where Renoir painted with such passion and a continuing zest for life, despite his health which continued to abandon him, is a remarkable feeling. There is no hint of sadness in the air. Just light and a feeling of contentment that feels ever present.
Aline died in 1915 and Renoir died in 1919 away from their beloved Essoyes. However, in 1922 their remains were transferred from Nice to the department of Aube. Renoir and Aline now both rest in Essoyes. It’s possible to visit their graves if you so wish. I did and it never felt as sombre as I imagined it might. After experiencing the home they’d lived in, I had little doubt that this is what they would have wanted.
To finish the tour, I was invited to Charles Collin Champagne which sits opposite the Cultural Centre. Charles Collin honours Renoir with a Champagne that has been created to celebrate 100 years since the death of the painter. Named after Renoir’s muse Gabrielle, this unique Brut celebrates a life well lived. We all raised a glass to Pierre Auguste Renoir. I humbly propose you do the same on your visit.
Demi Perera was born and raised for part of her life in Sri Lanka. She loves the open road, prefers the mountains over beaches and loves reading. Demi writes about two of her passions – food and wine.