Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born in Limoges on 25 February 1841. He was the sixth child in the family of Léonard Renoir and Marguerite Merlet. Three years later, in 1844, the Renoirs moved to Paris. In 1848, Auguste began attending a school run by the Frères des Ecoles Chrétiennes. Renoir was lucky with the music teacher — it proved to be the composer Charles Gounod, who took the boy into the choir at the church of Saint-Eustache.
In 1854, the boy’s parents took him from school and found a place for him in the Lévy brothers’ workshop, where he was to learn to paint porcelain. Renoir’s younger brother Edmond had this to say:
“From what he drew in charcoal on the walls, they concluded that he had the ability for an artist’s profession (…)The young apprentice set about mastering the craft seriously: at the end of the day, he armed himself with a piece of cardboard bigger than himself and headed for the free drawing courses. It went on like that for two or three years.”
He made rapid progress: a few months into his apprenticeship, he was already being set to paint pieces that they usually gave to qualified workers. That made him the butt of jokes. They called him Monsieur Rubens and he cried because they were laughing at him. One of the Lévys’ workers, Emile Laporte, painted in oils in his spare time. He suggested Renoir make use of his canvases and paints. This offer resulted in the appearance of the first painting by the future Impressionist. It was solemnly presented for Laporte’s inspection at the Renoir’s home.
Edmond Renoir recollected: “It’s as if it happened yesterday. I was still a boy, but I understood perfectly that something serious was taking place: the easel with the celebrated painting on it was set up in the middle of the largest room in our modest dwelling on the Rue d’Argenteuil. Everyone was nervous and burning with impatience. I was dressed up nicely and told to behave myself. It was very grand. The ‘maître’ arrived… At a signal, I moved his chair up close to the easel. He sat down and set about examining the ‘work’. I can see it now — it was Eve. Behind her, the snake was twined around the branches of an oak. It was approaching with open jaws, as if it wanted to cast a spell over Eve.
The trial lasted a quarter of an hour at least, after which, without any superfluous comments, that poor old man came up to our parents and told them: ‘You should let your son go in for painting. In our trade the most he will achieve is to make twelve or fifteen francs a day. I predict a brilliant future for him in art. Do all you can for him.” That is how family legend recorded the birth of Renoir, the artist.
Auguste Renoir positively acknowledged the role his family had played in shaping his future. It was from his parents that he obtained the respect for the crafts which remained with him all his life. Renoir liked the fact that his father and mother were simple people: “When I think that I might have been born to intellectuals! I would have needed years to divest myself of all their ideas and to see things as they really are, and in that event I would not have had enough dexterity in my hands.”
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