What Jean Renoir’s Films Owe to his Father

An exhibition at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia explores the influence of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the painter, on his son Jean Renoir, the filmmaker.

When American filmmaker Martin Scorsese was nine he was taken to see Jean Renoir’s film The River. About the same time — as he later recalled — he came across a postcard of Pierre-August Renoir’s painting of two girls picnicking. Scorsese doesn’t recall whether he made the father-son connection at the time, but he certainly did later in life when he came to appreciate The River as “the most beautiful color film ever made.” Scorsese was struck by the Impressionist painter’s influence on his son’s use of color in landscape scenes and even elsewhere. A sequence in the film of two little girls asleep, for example, “looks like right out of one of his father’s works,” he once said.

Scorsese was neither the first, nor the only person to recognize that visual and intellectual connection. On the contrary, a fruitful and at times paradoxical dialogue between a son and his father runs through Renoir’s own long and distinguished career as the director of — among others — Nana (1926), La Grande Illusion (1937), La Règle du jeu (1939), Le Carrosse d’or (1954). It was an exceptional, if not unique situation in the history of art. Other film directors have been inspired by painters, but never a son by his own father.


Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Picnic, c. 1893. © Collection of The Barnes Museum, Philadelphia

Jean acknowledged his father’s influence without fully understanding it. “I have spent my life trying to determine the extent of the influence of my father upon me,” he once said. Late in life he told the veteran American actor Norman Lloyd that early in his career critics had presumed that he would replicate his father’s style in his movies. He had tried hard not to mimic the older Renoir, but in the end, he supposed the critics had been right, he said.

It was inevitable that sooner or later the bulb would light up over someone’s head to explore the relationship between the two artists and between painting and cinema in an exhibition. That someone is Sylvie Patry, deputy director for curatorial affairs and collections at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and consulting curator at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, and the result of her endeavors is an exhibition called Renoir: Father and Son, Cinema and Painting at which people will be able to judge the relationship for themselves. The exhibition will be on display at the Barnes Foundation through September 3, and at the Musée d’Orsay from November 5. Pairing film clips with Renoir paintings, and using photographs, costumes, and documents, the exhibition goes beyond visual references and explores the themes (the treatment of women, for example) and locations (Paris, the South of France) common to both bodies of work. This includes, as Patry puts it, “a sense of humanity, a sort of pantheist approach to nature, and the idea that the artist is a craft maker.”

A Complex, Oscillating Relationship

Jean Renoir was 25 when his father died but his relationship with the great artist and his work had been close. Jean and his siblings had been frequent, if often reluctant, models for their father. Renoir never filmed his father: his film career began some five years after his father’s death. But his memoir, Renoir, My Father is one of the great literary portraits of an artist. Even so, as Sylvie Patry observes, from the filmmaker’s perspective “their relationship was complex and oscillated between moments of admiration and rejection. If Pierre-Auguste’s artistic practice and creative universe influenced Jean’s art, Jean’s films shed light on his father’s paintings.”

When he died, Pierre-Auguste left 720 paintings in his atelier, a large number of which Jean and his two brothers sold to collectors and dealers all over the world. Among the buyers was American businessman Albert C. Barnes who acquired 44 small Renoir paintings from Jean, many of them roughly sketched, and they are now distributed throughout the foundation’s galleries. But Barnes was obsessed with Renoir and by the end of his life had amassed 181 of his works, the largest single collection in existence. For good measure, the exhibition also includes a few loans from other institutions, one of which is Renoir’s portrait of Jean at 15 with a hunting rifle. It hung in Renoir’s Los Angeles living room until his death. And is now at the L.A. County Museum of Art.


A scene from Jean Renoir’s 1959 movie Picnic on the Grass.

All of which makes the Barnes a particularly fitting venue for the exhibition. Equally appropriate that it should have its genesis in the United States where Jean Renoir was a permanent resident from the 1940s for the rest of his life, with only occasional visits to his native France.1 If anything, Renoir: Father and Son, Cinema and Painting is an idea that’s overdue: Pierre-Auguste Renoir is one of the monuments of Western art, and his son is a filmmaker revered by movie writers and directors. François Truffaut loved Le Carrosse d’or so much that he named his production company after the film. Virtually all of Jean Renoir’s 19 feature films (14 in France; 5 in the U.S.) were critical successes, a few were also commercial hits.

For all the admiration of his peers, his cinematic genius was never embraced by the box-office driven Hollywood studios, which accounts for his sparse American œuvre and the consequent fact that he is not well known today. Hopefully, this exhibition will go some way to correcting that.

1 See the article “Renoir in Hollywood” published in the September 2016 issue of France-Amérique

Renoir: Father and Son, Painting and Cinema
Through September 3, 2018

Barnes Foundation
2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Philadelphia, PA 19130

Article publié dans le numéro d’avril 2018 de France-Amérique