43rd Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, May 15, "Rediscovering Renoir: Materials and technique in the paintings of Pierre-Auguste Renoir at the Art Institute of Chicago" by Kelly Keegan

Renoir is one of those art historical giants that I’m sometimes guilty of overlooking, simply because of how frequently his imagery appears in contemporary culture. An upcoming treatment of a Renoir painting at work, though, meant that it was high time to take a closer look. Fortunately, Kelly Keegan of the Art Institute of Chicago gave a fantastic presentation on “Rediscovering Renoir” at the 2015 AIC conference, which was brimming with details about the artist’s materials and techniques, and beautiful photomicrographs and graphics.
The presentation was a summary of findings from the in-depth technical study of Renoir’s 15 paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, conducted as part of the Online Scholarly Catalog Initiative. Examination techniques included x-radiography; infrared, transmitted light, and ultraviolet imaging; x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy; scanning electron microscopy/energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy; polarized light microscopy, surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy; thread counting; and, of course, lots and lots of looking under the microscope.
Renoir was both less and more methodical than I expected. For example of the former, he didn’t have a reliable art supply merchant. His canvases ranged in fineness, and thread counting demonstrated that they never came from the same bolt of cloth. Although most of the paintings are now lined and on non-original stretchers, seven canvas stamps from four different suppliers were found. His ground layers were usually white or off-white, with dragged inclusions and palette knife marks indicating application by the artist. The use of the palette knife often exposed the tops of the canvas weave.
Renoir’s compositional planning shows his meticulous side. Even the highly impressionistic work Chrysanthemums includes a graphite underdrawing with individual petals. The artist varied his preparatory drawing medium, using dry media, blue or brown paint, or red lake washes. Slight adjustments were common, and a dramatic change was discovered in Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise, the catalog cover image: an isolated two-person encounter was initially depicted, but the final product has three figures. Later in Renoir’s career, infrared examination shows the debilitating effect that rheumatoid arthritis had on his once-confident draftsman’s hand.

Graphic illustrating Renoir's use of yellows in 15 paintings. (Photo credit Amber Kerr.)
Graphic illustrating Renoir’s use of yellows in 15 paintings. (Photo credit Amber Kerr.)

Renoir’s color palette included vivid pigments, including emerald green, cobalt blue, various bright yellows (see image above), vermilion, and red lakes, in addition to iron oxides. One color he considered an “unnecessary purchase” was yellow ochre, which he ironically preferred to mix himself using much more expensive pigments. Although he did a lot of blending on the painting, he kept his brush clean to prevent muddying of the colors. In contrast to most other Impressionists, Renoir’s paint layers are quite thin relative to the ground layer. The influence of his teenage training as a porcelain painter is evident in his use of thin glazes, especially with luminescent red lakes over white ground. He used a palette knife at times to scrape away layers and create texture in the interstices of the canvas weave.
This presentation was chock full of technical information and interesting quirks about Renoir that not only make me feel more prepared to approach a Renoir treatment, but also give me a much better appreciation for an artist that deserves a close look. His work shines under the microscope and when considering the individual behind the paintings. The Online Scholarly Catalogs are a wonderful resource, and I’m grateful to have gotten Keegan’s dynamic overview of the Renoir content.