Text by Geoffrey Smith
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Marguerite-Louise Lemonnier married Georges Charpentier in 1872 and very soon the couple were blessed with a daughter, Georgette-Berthe, followed three years later by a son, Paul-Émile-Charles. Georges was a wealthy publisher who counted Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant and the Goncourt brothers among his authors. They both became keen supporters of the Impressionists and in 1879 Georges founded a magazine La Vie Moderne, which championed their cause (a gallery was opened on the ground floor of the magazine’s offices devoted to exhibiting works by the Impressionist circle).
Mme Charpentier held a salon every Friday to which she invited artists, writers and politicians; Renoir and Manet received invitations but it was Renoir who became a particular favorite. Through her he was introduced to an affluent and fashionable circle where he found a ready supply of patronage, not least from the Charpentiers themselves for whom he painted five portraits, this wonderful piece, finished in 1878, being the most celebrated. He integrated into this milieu with ease and (perhaps choosing solvency over penury) he decided to submit this painting together with a portrait of the actress Jeanne Samary to the 1879 Salon rather than take part in the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition. And indeed this seems to have been a wise choice as the jury, possibly mindful of the influential principal subject of the painting, chose to hang Mme Charpentier and her Children in a prominent location. The critics were by no means unanimous in their praise, one reviewer damning it as a ‘slack, transparent sketch’ in which ‘there is a complete absence of perspective’ but there is no doubt that, in general, the painting was hailed as a success, especially in regard to Renoir’s gifts as a colourist.
Renoir’s brother Edmond tells us that the picture was ‘painted at home. None of the furniture was moved from its usual place.’ This feeling of informality suffuses the work. Madame Charpentier, resplendent in an elegant and fashionable Worth dress, reclines on a sofa next to her young son Paul who, in line with contemporary middle class custom, is dressed as if he were a girl, in an outfit to match that of his sister. Georgette is perched on top of the very large family dog who seems to wear an expression of resigned exasperation. They are surrounded by furniture – in the background (behind the Worth dress) a table and chair can be seen, their design emblematic of the current enthusiasm for all things oriental. A rich red and gold screen featuring a pair of peacocks, forming the background to the picture, complements the cane ensemble.
But as always with Renoir, the real star of the show is the paint – that marvellous profusion of colour with which he assails the canvas. There are a number of passages where Renoir’s technique gives particular pleasure. The still life of flowers, fruit and lustered glassware on the occasional table is rendered with extraordinary facility, a huge range of colour being used to convey the pattern of the vase, the flowers, and in particular the reflections in the set of glasses and jug. Mme Charpentier’s dress has also received the full Renoir treatment as has the hair and dresses of the two children.
This painting and its reception at the Salon marked a turning point for Renoir, opening doors to future commissions and releasing him from financial worries. As Camille Pissarro noted in a letter, Renoir ‘has been a great success at the Salon. I think he has made his mark. So much the better; poverty is so hard.’ But perhaps the highest praise came from Marcel Proust, who refers to this painting in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, comparing it to ‘Titian at his best.’
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1878 Edward Burne-Jones: Laus Veneris, Newcastle upon Tyne, Laing Art Gallery
1878 Mary Cassatt: Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, Washington, National Gallery of Art