Of the Impressionists, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was always the one I was most comfortable with, the one whose pictures seemed as though you could live with them. Maybe this was because I had, as a child, a large-format booklet with poster-sized reproductions of many of his paintings, out of which I eventually tore The Swing to stick up on the wall of the first space I ever had to myself, in Hyderabad, and The Reader, to adorn my book cupboard at home in Bombay. I lived with the former for a year and the latter is still up, on the plywood door of the cupboard, just above where my grandmother used to sit in her chair; I pass by it every time I pass the piano and smile at it when I notice it, for even after all these years, that faded girl with the book looks as absorbed in her reading and in the painting as she did the first time I saw her. By now, she, and Renoir, have quietly settled down in that corner of the flat in which I grew up.
And, taking that feeling a little further, Renoir, My Father, a memoir/biography by French filmmaker Jean Renoir about his famous painter father, is a book I could live with; in fact, a book I will live with. It is comfortable and comforting, the sort of book I will go back to when I am miserable or lonely or exhausted, because it will calm and delight and be an example of sorts.
What strikes me most about this book is that it is testimony to one aspect of how to live well. Perhaps one of the hardest lessons we ever learn as human beings is that of how to forgive our parents for being mortal, frail, fallible, flawed—for being, in fact, no better than us, and not the perfect comfort they might have been, sometime, in our memories of the distant past. This is a book about Renoir and, to some extent, also about his son, Jean Renoir, but it is also a book about that lesson in forgiving one’s parents. And if anyone ever understood that lesson, it was Jean Renoir as he wrote this book about his father, his family, the artistic ethos that surrounded them, and the warm, loving friendships threaded through his father’s life. For, as he writes in the first person, he neither sentimentalizes nor judges his parents; all he does is give us a matter-of-fact account of them, writing with great tenderness but also frankly and honestly, taking an approach of maturity, of the sort that many do not ever seem to attain.
Jean works his way through Renoir’s life, from his childhood to his apprenticeship in a porcelain factory, painting on fine china, through art school and his meeting with Sisley, Bazille, and Monet, to the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, on to travels in Europe and North Africa, and marriage to Aline Charigot, as the family man, to his struggle with crippling arthritis, and finally, his death. His style is anecdotal and digressive, now wandering off with a recollection of old neighbours, then coming back to a tale of Renoir and a patron, moving onto a recollection from his own childhood, then talking about Renoir’s philosophy and work, and so on. Much of the book is based on conversations he had with his father after being invalided out of the First World War with a leg wound. These are mostly supplemented by recollections from Jean himself and from Gabrielle, the Renoirs’ cousin, nanny, and a model for the artist. The result is the sort of book you can dip into at random, picking an anecdote or homing in on a name, and then reading whatever you come across, for while this is a long biographical narrative, it is also a fragmentary one, and each fragment brings something precious with it.
Jean’s discussion of Renoir’s artistic work and his process of creation and “seeing” his pictures is deeply insightful for anyone interested in Renoir, the painter. But it is his discussion of Renoir the man that has the most enduring value. All the same, make no mistake about it—Jean never puts his father entirely on a pedestal. He talks of all sorts of aspects of his father’s life, everything from his particular preoccupations with protecting children from illness and injury to his reactions when face with a painting forged to look like one of his, to even, briefly and discreetly, conjecture on his parents’ sex life. But it is the detachment and simultaneous fondness in his tone that mark the narrative out as remarkable, as much as the wealth of detail he provides on personalities and a way of life long gone.
When I sat down to think about it, I realised that Renoir had his children quite late in life—44 when the eldest was born and nearly 60 at the birth of the youngest. Fifty-three years separated Jean and his father. As a consequence, they were young at the time of his physical deterioration and death and saw their mother, too, constrained by diabetes and respiratory issues. Who is to know what the young Jean felt about his old parents’ ill-health? But if there was any resentment, any impatience, any anger at their parents, Jean does not mention it; and considering his willingness to talk about his own foibles as a child, it seems likely that what is not mentioned never existed. Instead, there is a strong sense of acceptance of “everything that is the case” (as Wittgenstein would have it); Jean’s telling of the tales of his father’s life is rooted in a firm memory of what was his reality, not in regret or seeking for an explanation for any errors committed by his parents.
This is, perhaps, the fruit of repeated contemplation of that memory; perhaps the creases have been smoothened out already, before this writing. But if they have indeed been done away with, it is not to produce triteness. There is nothing contrived about Jean’s writing of his father’s working through arthritic pain and stiffness, struggling to grasp the brush, sighing at his bedsores, calm in the steadiness of artistic creation that, Jean says, was shot through with a sense of rightness because it was the path Renoir knew he was made to go down. It is touching and intensely moving, a portrait of horrible degeneration of the body along with the ineffable fluidity of a mind entirely at ease with its place in the world.
Renoir, My Father is thus the biography of a remarkable man and also of his remarkable family life. Is it the truth about Renoir? Jean Renoir clearly understood that this would be the question people would ask, for his epigraph remarks on how history is just another genre—this cannot but be a book about his conception of Renoir his father. Does it even matter if this is the truth? It does not, though at the same time, there seems to be no question of it being anything but the truth. For the truth of this book goes well beyond the truth of biographical detail. What it carries is the truth of a good life lived and the love of a son for his father, as a human being above all else.