The Maligned Impressionist Painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir Illustrates Emile Zola’s Gritty Novel L’Assommoir (1878)

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We’ve all been to a muse­um with that friend or fam­i­ly mem­ber who just doesn’t “get” mod­ern art and sug­gests it’s all a con. Con­cep­tu­al art? Abstract expres­sion­ism? What is that?! Impres­sion­ism? Who wants blur­ry, poor­ly drawn paint­ings?! Arrgh!

Hey, maybe some of us are that friend or fam­i­ly mem­ber. Maybe our com­plaints are even more specific—maybe some of us are mem­bers of a “cul­tur­al jus­tice” move­ment called “Renoir Sucks at Paint­ing.” Maybe we show up at the Boston Muse­um of Fine Arts with signs par­o­dy­ing the car­toon­ish­ly ter­ri­ble West­boro Bap­tist Church (“God Hates Renoir”) and demand­ing, with as much force as one can with a par­o­dy sign, that the Renoirs be removed from the com­pa­ny of wor­thi­er objets d’art.

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One crit­i­cal dif­fer­ence between the typ­i­cal art hater and the Renoir Sucks crew: the lat­ter do not object to Pierre-Auguste Renoir because his work is too hard to “get,” but because it’s too easy. Renoir, they say, paint­ed “trea­cle” and “deformed pink fuzzy women.” As art crit­ic Peter Schjel­dahl writes in The New York­er, “Renoir’s win­some sub­jects and efful­gent hues jump in your lap like a friend­ly pup­py.” Renoir is so far from avant-garde that Schjel­dahl can peg his “exag­ger­at­ed blush and sweet­ness” as an exam­ple of the “pop­u­lar appeal” that “advanced the bour­geois cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion that was Impres­sion­ism.” Ouch.

This kind of assess­ment gets no help from the painter’s great-great grand­daugh­ter, Genevieve, who responds to crit­ics by quot­ing sales fig­ures: “It is safe to say,” she writes, “that the free mar­ket has spo­ken and Renoir did NOT suck at paint­ing.” By this mea­sure, Thomas Kinkade and Sis­ter Maria Inno­cen­tia Hum­mel were also artis­tic genius­es. The charges of “aes­thet­ic ter­ror­ism” against Renoir come right out of the icon­o­clasm that func­tions in the art world as both mean­ing­ful dis­sent and suc­cess­ful gim­mick (cf. Mar­cel Duchamp, or Ai Weiwei’s con­tro­ver­sial, gallery-fill­ing attacks on revered cul­tur­al arti­facts.) But per­haps the hon­est ques­tion remains: does Renoir Suck at Paint­ing?

Let us reserve judg­ment and take a look at anoth­er side of Renoir, a rarely seen excur­sion into book illustration—specifically the four illus­tra­tions he made for an 1878 edi­tion of Emile Zola’s nov­el L’Assommoir (“The Dram Shop”). Described by the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go as “grit­ti­ly real­is­tic,” Zola’s nat­u­ral­ist depic­tion of what he called “the inevitable down­fall of a work­ing-class fam­i­ly in the pol­lut­ed atmos­phere of our urban areas” pro­voked many of its read­ers, who regard­ed the book as “an unfor­giv­able lapse of taste on the part of its author.” It showed Parisians “an aspect of cur­rent life that most found fright­en­ing and repul­sive.” Nonethe­less, the nov­el became a pop­u­lar suc­cess.


The four black-and-white engrav­ings here—made from Renoir’s orig­i­nal drawings—are the impres­sion­ist’s con­tri­bu­tion to Zola’s ill­lus­trat­ed nov­el. The choice of Renoir as one of sev­er­al artists for this edi­tion seems an odd one. (Zola, a friend of the painter’s, approached him per­son­al­ly.) Then, as now, Renoir had a rep­u­ta­tion for sun­ny opti­mism: “he always looks on the bright side,” remarked one con­tem­po­rary. Renoir’s “pref­er­ence for cre­at­ing images of beau­ty,” writes The Art Insti­tute of Chica­go, “made the illus­tra­tion of the par­tic­u­lar­ly seedy pas­sages of the nov­el prob­lem­at­ic, and some of the result­ing draw­ings lack con­vic­tion.”

Instead of suc­cumb­ing to the novel’s grim tone, Renoir’s orig­i­nal ren­der­ings, like the “loose wash draw­ing” in “warm, brown ink” at the top of the post, “gen­tly sub­vert­ed the dark under­tones of Zola’s text.” Below the orig­i­nal draw­ing, see the engrav­ing that appeared in the book. Book blog Adven­tures in the Print Trade con­cedes the plates “are of vary­ing qual­i­ty” and sin­gles out the illus­tra­tion just above as the most suc­cess­ful one, since “the sub­ject-mat­ter is per­fect for Renoir, and the whole scene is brim­ming with life.”

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As you can see from the two images at the top of the post, the trans­la­tion from Renoir’s draw­ings to the final book engrav­ings left many of his fig­ures blurred and obscured, and intro­duce a dark heav­i­ness to work under­tak­en with a much soft­er, lighter touch. Do these illus­tra­tions add any­thing to our under­stand­ing of whether Renoir Sucks at Paint­ing? Who can say. It’s true that here, as in many of his well-known paint­ings, “the com­po­si­tions tend to be slack,” as Schjel­dahl writes. Nonethe­less, the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go auda­cious­ly judges the brown ink wash draw­ing at the top of the post “one of the most impor­tant draw­ings the artist pro­duced dur­ing the years of high Impres­sion­ism.”

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They only add to my appre­ci­a­tion of Renoir, who does not, I think, suck. Even if his work can be, as Schjel­dahl says, “high glu­cose,” I would argue that his sweet­ness and light pro­vide just the right approach to Zola, whose nov­els, like those of oth­er nat­u­ral­ists such as Theodore Dreis­er or Thomas Hardy, con­tain much more than a hint of sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Aston­ish­ing Film of Arthrit­ic Impres­sion­ist Painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1915)

Hen­ri Matisse Illus­trates 1935 Edi­tion of James Joyce’s Ulysses

The Post­cards That Picas­so Illus­trat­ed and Sent to Jean Cocteau, Apol­li­naire & Gertrude Stein

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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