Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The Umbrellas, 1883 (approx)


I’m beginning to settle into a little routine when I write about these paintings, and it seems to run counter, somewhat, to the “smart” way to approach a blog.  One is supposed to write every day or every other day to create interest, and I simply cannot manage it.  I have to experiment a little with every painting I select, and I have so delighted myself by doing so that I am loathe to speed up the process.  So I imagine once a week or so is all I’ll be able to get to, if that.


My other failure is in handling comments.  One is supposed to respond to comments and create dialogue to be more inclusive.  But the whole point of my articles centers on the idea that this is a very personal and solitary pursuit.  I am trying to encourage people to just slow down and concentrate for a moment.  For a long time I didn’t know how to trick myself into reaching that thoughtful state of mind.  We modern human beings receive little training in reflection.  That is too bad, because when we are confronted with great creative work there are rewards awaiting those who are willing to think about what they are looking at.  Why do I like this?  What makes this good?  Is this really good, or am I just accepting what I’ve been told? What is there, within this thing, waiting for me to discover it?  These are questions I try to answer for myself.  I do not expect to be right or wrong; I only want to be absorbed.  The song says, “I want to be a lion, yeah, everybody wants to pass as cats.”  Really? Then I want to pass as a dog if for no other reason than to be contrary.  I do not trust what “everybody” else wants.  So much money and industry is devoted to making me think a certain way that I have to find quiet places just to escape the yammering.  I want to believe my thoughts and emotions arise from my inner self, and are not mere programmed responses to Orwellian stimuli.


And so Renoir painted The Umbrellas to address this very issue.


The first thing you notice in this picture is that the woman on the left is hot, and I mean scorching.  I tried to find a nice, non-sexist way to address this, but ultimately I decided to be blunt.  I’ve seen enough Renoir to think he went out of his way to make this woman desirable.  Is there any doubt the young gentleman at her shoulder feels the same way I do?  But she is not the whole focus of the picture.  To her left stands a child with a hoop and stick, also ideally beautiful.  She is protected by two figures: an older sister who walks just behind her, but with a reassuring hand on her arm, and a young woman who is either her mother or a governess, who is looking back to make sure all is well.  She is protected on two sides.


The woman with the basket is not protected at all. She is alone.  Her basket is empty.  She is looking directly at me, as is the little girl.  The two of them want something from me, and I don’t know what it is.  Renoir seems to borrow from Rembrandt for this technique, for making it seem as if these two are real people whom you have merely interrupted. The woman and the child are alive.  You can almost see them thinking.  Everyone else in this painting is just a drawing.  But there is nothing about this drawing left to chance.


Behind the governess stands another woman, in a dress of somewhat brighter blue.  She holds her umbrella half open, its handle draws a connective line between the woman with the basket and the child.  The lady with the umbrella is looking up.  She is either opening or closing the umbrella, unsure.  The woman with the basket seems harassed, she emerges from the crowd as if escaping.  The crowd is a pandemonium of umbrellas, umbrellas everywhere, a torrent of umbrellas like a river running five feet above the ground.  No rain, though.  We know there has been no rain because our lady with the basket has dry hair.  No rain and all those brollys. The little girl is also dry, and she too has no umbrella.  She is as dry as the sister who protects her, the sister who presumably has taught her of the world.  The sister who stands behind her with a hand on her shoulder as if to pull her back from danger or to push her forward as the little one might push the hoop, push her into a crowd of mad umbrellas.


The lady behind the governess looks upward and now I think that despite the evidence of her eyes she is opening this umbrella, not closing it.  The pressure of the crowd is too much for her.  She wants to blend in, even if it is stupid.  Meanwhile, the lady with the basket only wants to get away.  She is tired of foolishness.  She is young and beautiful and her basket is empty.  She might fill it with anything!  But there is a resignation in her face.  Her eyes meet mine directly and say, See?  See this clown behind me?  I cannot fight against this current.  My basket is not a boat.  He will take me and I will bob along this great river of idiots, lost and doomed like this small child beside me.  And you could have saved me.  All you had to do was stop for just a minute.  Just stop.  Look up.  See the sun.


Anyway, as I was saying.  I can’t do this every day.


As for comments on the blog, well, this isn’t a debate.  I really enjoy the comments and I encourage everyone to talk amongst yourselves.  If I have something useful to add to something you’ve said, I will add it; if not, not.












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5 Responses to Pierre-Auguste Renoir

  1. Steve says:

    Your blog doesn’t have to be like any other blog unless you have the same purpose and audience as another blog. I think a blog that walks away from the crowd of umbrellas and looks up at the sun definitely has its place.

  2. Lauren Riggs says:

    I love this blog. And this painting. One of my very favorite Renoirs. The umbrella’s represent the group-think, the lady and child look at the viewer with faces that say, “Jesus, this is quite stupid. Let’s get the hell outta here and grab a drink.”

    One thought: Any reason why the woman is dressed all in black and wears no accessories? I’m thinking it might be another note to the contrariety of the this painting.

    • foxpudding says:

      As it happens, Renoir painted this lady more than once. His first version was, I believe, in 1881. He returned to the painting in ’85 or ’86 specifically to work on her dress. My suspicion is that she is a servant (hence the basket) sent out to market or some such, a victim of the upper classes represented by the umbrellas. The child is of the upper class, but I think his suggestion is that she is no less a victim of the hive mind. Or not.

      • Dana Brenner says:

        I love Renoir. this painting is or maybe could be 2 paintings in one. But together they work as one. The part of the painting that has always confused me is the cement walkway they are standing on the and the hugh basket. The backround and why the people are above those in the foreground. Thanks to you Don, the “cement color” is continued from someplace. The people seem to be separating to let you through. The basket hides the cement where I am thinking there maybe steps to the back round or or a sort wall??? If you follow the cement above the basket it seems to turn. I am like where does the walkway go? So the blue in the painting make my eyes go around the paintings in circles looking for that color. I find it way at top on the right hand side. There is so much going on in this painting, finding this color at the top relaxes me so I can fully enjoy your writing. Thank you!!!

  3. Elizabeth Hunter says:

    This painting makes me feel nervous. It’s so crowded! I feel very claustraphobic staring at it….the only releif I find is in the child and her mother/whoever’s face. I like that they are both smiling. The child seems happy to be out with her toy, and the mother/whoever does not seem hurried, but is in fact enjoying her outing with her happy pretty child. That is important to me. The two of them make me like this picture. The woman on the left seems tired and irritated. The slight lift in her right eyebrow says, “Really?” and I feel for her because all of the sudden I’m back in a sea of overwhelming umbrellas. But I have to admit, I love the color of her hair.

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