Picks and Pans Review: Renoir, His Life, Arts and Letters

updated 12/17/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/17/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Barbara Ehrlich White

Whatever Pierre-Auguste Renoir chose to paint—children and girls in flower, men and women drifting through summer afternoon boating parties, the ample nudes of his old age—turned radiant under his brush strokes. His paintings were of a serene world, filled with light and the hint of imminent laughter. But the reality of Renoir's life was far darker than the airy bourgeois vision he brought to his art. In the workmanlike if uninspired text that accompanies this beautiful book's 391 photographs and illustrations, White details the rougher sections of the great Impressionist's life. For much of it he was shadowed by money problems so severe that not until he was a middle-aged painter did he enjoy a measure of financial calm. He suffered, too, from a progressively crippling case of rheumatoid arthritis. In his 70s the deformity in his hands was so severe he was forced to work with his brush strapped to his fingers, yet he produced 100 paintings in the five-year period before his death in 1919. White, a Tufts University art historian, also delves into Renoir's freely expressed anti-Semitism. "They are very nice people and not Jewish at all so far as I can see," he wrote about two of his acquaintances in a letter dated 1883. While her prose sometimes seems stodgy, White does convey how Renoir lived outside the rules of the world he painted and how obsessed he was with his work. It wasn't until he was nearly 50 that he married Aline Charigot, his peasant common-law wife. (White suggests Renoir might have worried that Aline's broad hips and simple ways wouldn't sit well with the upper classes, whose patronage he so desperately sought.) When he died at the age of 78 at Les Collettes, his house in the south of France, Renoir's final words were, "Give me my palette...Quick, some paints." For a few hours after his death he lay in his bed covered with his favorite flowers, yellow and pink roses. (Abrams, $67.50)

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