Jeunet and Renoir: Impressionist Artists

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Le déjeuner des canotiers (1881) is a painting that embodies the fluidity of Parisian culture in the 19th Century. Depicting a lively mixture of people and a newfound enthusiasm for leisure, Renoir celebrates the emerging bourgeois class that was crossing into social territories once dominated by the aristocracy. The work not only shows the transitional state of contemporary France, but also reflects Renoir’s crossing of stylistic boundaries. Teetering between Impressionism and a more defined style, the painting reveals the changing nature of his art at this time. These themes of betweenness, boundaries and transience have been echoed by Jeune-Pierre Jeunet in the film Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001). By using Le déjeuner des canotiers as a cultural reference, Amélie Poulain and Raymond Dufayel’s issues of aloofness and confinement work together to amplify the painting’s compositional and contextual elements.

Le déjeuner des canotiers (1881)

While Le déjeuner des canotiers buzzes with the feeling of activity and sociability, Raymond’s interpretation of Renoir’s model, Ellen Andrée, scrutinises Amélie’s detachment from others. His comments about her being ‘in the centre, yet distanced’ not only expose the issues in Amélie’s relationships, but also call attention to the painting’s portrayal of sociability in 19th Century Paris. The film alludes to the model and Amélie’s connection by mirroring them visually, with women both holding a glass of water. Isabelle Vanderschelden comments on this visual parallel, asserting that although both figures are central to the artwork and film in which they belong, they appear isolated from others (Vanderschelden 2007: loc 1235). By having Amélie and Raymond theorise about the model’s loneliness and disconnection with her environment, the audience begin to notice how the surrounding figures in the painting are also disengaged. So, within the painting and the film, we are notified of a paradox: being immersed with people but experiencing a degree of separation from them.

Amélie [left] and Ellen Andrée [right]

John House attributes this phenomenon to the changing dynamic of urban crowds in 1880s Paris from ‘an aggregate of individuals… to an anonymous mass’, something that was of concern to Renoir (House 1985: 26). This conflict between individuality and collectiveness is best highlighted by the amalgamation of different gazes within Le déjeuner des canotiers. While existing together in this busy composition, each figure is isolated by not having their gaze acknowledged by who it is directed at. By doing this, Renoir’s fears about the loss of individuality are pacified by his depiction of each figure possessing a unique gaze and completing separate actions. His shift away from Impressionist techniques to painting with more borders around his figures also makes each of them highly individualised. Although these factors can be seen as Renoir celebrating singularity in the face of Paris’s rapid urbanisation, Raymond uses the painting to criticise Amélie’s tendency towards individualism. He alludes to Amélie having no childhood friends and forces her to reflect on her peripheral relationship within other people’s lives. Thus, by bringing together themes within the painting and the film, we are invited to reflect upon what it means to be close to others. While Le déjeuner des canotiers is celebrated as a joyful composition, Jeunet’s inclusion of the painting as a trigger for Amélie’s internal conflict invites a deeper reflection of the artworks. Amélie and Raymond’s musings pose questions about the seemingly idyllic presentation of mingling in Le déjeuner des canotiers, and whether proximity to others truly necessitates meaningful connections and relationships.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir [left] and Raymond [right]

Similarly, a greater understanding of the painting’s production and its relation to Renoir‘s life is aided by Jeunet’s characterisation of Raymond. Edward Tomarken asserts that Raymond’s ‘physical dilemma is a mirror of Amélie’s psychological one’ (Tomarken 2012: 52). Like Renoir, Raymond suffers with arthiritus and experiences social isolation in the same way that Amélie does. Consequently, he has occupied himself with recreating Le déjeuner des canotiers annually for twenty years. Raymond’s painstaking routine of altering and recreating aspects of the painting contradicts with Impressionist ideas of spontaneity and fleetingness, revealing Renoir’s ambivalence towards the movement at the time of the painting’s production. This is further supported in the defined and polished style of the painting itself. On the other hand, Renoir’s earlier works, such as La Grenouillère (1869)and Bal du moulin de la Galette (1876), clearly embody Impressionist characteristics.

La Greanouillère (1869) [left] Bal du moulin de la Galette (1876) [right]

The outlines of objects are blurred, the brushstrokes are haphazard and light is represented subjectively. In line with Impressionist sentiments, these works capture a moment spontaneously and are not subject to excessive editing. Moreover, these works and many of Renoir’s early paintings were completed ‘en plein air’, becoming a staple of his process and of the Impressionist movement as a whole. While Le déjeuner des canotiers upholds some of these Impressionist properties through its depiction of leisure in bold and warm tones, rejection of Impressionism is also apparent. The painting was produced largely in Renoir’s studio and utilises more careful techniques: the figures are contoured; the brush strokes are precise; and the depiction of light is more subtle and objective in comparison to his earlier works. This shift can be attributed to Renoir’s declining health, limiting him to his studio, and his growing disenchantment with Impressionism by the mid 1880s (Covington 2010). Therefore, Jeunet’s characterisation of Raymond calls attention to Renoir’s physical and artistic condition at the time of Le déjeuner des canotiers’s production. Raymond’s experience of boundaries between the inside and outside worlds, and the meticulousness of his painting style, can be said to mirror Renoir’s own perception of boundaries. This includes the limitations that Impressionism put on his art during the later years of his career, causing his venture into more traditional techniques.

Despite drifting from Impressionism in terms of style, Raymond and Amélie’s discussion of the painting reminds us of its inherent Impressionistic values. Raymond describes his fascination with Le déjeuner des canotiers, specifically how the figures’ moods seem to change with each viewing and his difficulty in capturing Ellen Andrée’s expression. Raymond’s inability to pinpoint or recreate the emotions that Renoir captured highlights the Impressionist’s tendency to depict fickle, irretrievable moments. Raymond’s views of the painting as transient mirrors the contemporary reception it received. Upon seeing Le déjeuner des canotiers exhibited at the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition in 1882, critic Théodore Durat likened it to ‘a world where “everything flows”, organisms and their surroundings are constantly changing’ (Durat qtd in Potter 2014: 9). Thus, the enchantment that Raymond has with the painting echoes that of contemporary critics, emphasising the timelessness of the painting’s impact on both contemporary and modern viewers.

The legacy of Le déjeuner des canotiers’s transience and its celebration of life’s pleasures reverberate throughout the film. Michelle Scatton-Tessier characterises Amélie as a film that explores the concept of ‘le petisme’ which ‘bears homage to the little things’ and ‘centres on the familiar, resulting in a withdraw into oneself’ (Scatton-Tessier 2004: 197). Jeunet expresses this concept of ‘le petisme’ through his protagonists, including Raymond, who has been familiarising himself with the minute details of Renoir’s painting for twenty years. Moreover, Amélie herself indulges in many of life’s small pleasures: dipping her hands in bags of grain; cracking crème brulées; skimming stones and making small, but powerful alterations in the lives of others. As a result, the film becomes somewhat of an Impressionist artwork in itself, using Le déjeuner des canotiers as a reference and springboard to explore everyday delights and Amélie’s ephemerality.

Overall, Renoir’s painting and Jeunet’s film work in tandem to magnify what makes each of the works culturally significant. Raymond and Amélie’s scrutiny of Le déjeuner des canotiers not only invites an insight into Amélie’s struggles, but also Renoir’s views of art and urban Parisian society. The distance that Amélie maintains in her relationships holds a mirror to the painting’s depiction of unmet gazes, in the same way that Raymond’s confinement mirrors that of Renoir’s artistic struggles. However, Jeunet uses the painting not only as a tool for reflecting upon Renoir and his characters, but also to underpin the film’s famously charming essence — a joyous, impressionistic story of people enjoying life’s small and fleeting pleasures.

References:
- Andrew, Dudley (2011) What Cinema Is! Bazin’s Quest and Its Charge. New Jersey: Wiley.
- Covington, Richard (2010) ‘Renoir’s Controversial Second Act’. Smithsonian Magazine [online], available from:
<https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/renoirs-controversial-second-act-4941803/> [accessed 14 November 2021].
- Goretti, Giordana (2020) ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party in the Movie Amélie’. Daily Art Magazine [online], available from:
<https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/luncheon-of-the-boating-party-in-the-movie-amelie/> [accessed 10 November 2021].
- House, John (1985) ‘Renoir and the Earthly Paradise’. Oxford Art Journal 8(2), pp. 21–27.
- Kershner, Brandon R. (2003) ‘The Reader, The Frame, and Impressionism in “Heart of Darkness”’. Conradiana 35(1/2), pp. 41–47.
- Potter, Polyxeni (2014) Art in Science: Selections from EMERGING INFECTIOUS DISEASES. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
- Reynold de Seresin, Elaine (2014) Auguste Renoir: Aux sources de l’impressionnisme. Bruxelles: Group Lemaitre.
- Scatton-Tessier, Michelle (2004) ‘Le Petisme: flirting with the sordid in Le. Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain’. Studies in French Cinema 4 (3), pp. 197–207.
- Tomarken, Edward (2012) Filmspeak: How to Understand Literary Theory by Watching Movies. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
- Vanderschelden, Isabelle (2007) Amélie: French Film Guide [eBook]. London: I.B. Tauris.
Filmography:
- Amelie (2001) Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet [feature film]. France: UGC-Fox Distribution.
List of Illustrations:
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le déjeuner des canotiers, 1881 (The Phillips Collection, Washington).
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Grenouillère, 1869 (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm).
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Bal du moulin de la Galette, 1876 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris).

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My aim with this blog is that there will be something for every movie fan. I intend to write about films from various genres, in both the 20th and 21st century, whilst taking care to extend beyond English-speaking cinema. My inbox is always open to suggestions. Enjoy! ❤

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For the Love of Film | Imogen Peckham

For the Love of Film | Imogen Peckham

UG Comparative Literature and Film Studies at Queen Mary University of London

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