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Excerpt from Encyclopædia Britannica:

Jean Renoir

Jean Renoir,  (born Sept. 15, 1894, Paris, France—died Feb. 12, 1979, Los Angeles, Calif., U.S.), French film director, son of the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. His films, in both silent and later eras, were noted for their realism and strong narrative and include such classics as Grand Illusion (1937), The Rules of the Game (1939), and The River (1951).

Early years

Renoir was born in the Montmartre section of Paris in an environment in which art predominated, among painters and their models, he spent a happy childhood, which was richer in the carefree appreciation of beauty than in formal studies. Nevertheless, he received a degree in 1913 from the University of Aix-en-Provence, where he wrote poetry, and joined the cavalry to begin a military career.

World War I broke out in 1914, and Renoir was wounded in the leg. During his convalescence, he spent his time in Paris movie houses, where he discovered the serials and Charlie Chaplin. After he recovered he rejoined the service in the air force and finished the war with the rank of lieutenant.

Undecided on a career, he studied ceramics with his brother at Cagnes-sur-mer, near Nice, where his family had settled. Early in 1920 he married one of his father’s models, Andrée Heurschling, a few months after the painter’s death, and went with her to live in Marlotte, a village near Paris in which his father had once painted.

Intending to set up a ceramics factory, Jean Renoir was joined by his friend Paul Cézanne, the son of the painter. Having come into contact with theatrical circles through his sister-in-law, the actress Vera Sergine, Renoir was attracted by the evolving art of the film and decided to write a screenplay. It was made into the film Catherine, or Une Vie sans joie (A Life Without Joy), in 1923, with his wife appearing under the name of Catherine Hessling. The first film Renoir directed was La Fille de l’eau (released 1924 The Girl of the Water), which again starred his wife. All of his early films were produced in a makeshift way, with technical clumsiness, a lack of means, and a certain amateurishness. Nevertheless, the instinctive genius of the filmmaker found expression in them. These early films, which reveal a strong pictorial influence, have taken on with time a particular charm. In the late 1920s he found his inspiration in the writings of Émile Zola, Hans Christian Andersen, and others but made of them personal films in the style of the French avant-garde of the period.

These films had no commercial success, and Renoir and his backers were almost ruined. The advent of sound in motion pictures brought new difficulties, but Renoir passed the test with On purge bébé (1931 Going to Pot) and proved himself with La Chienne (1931 The Bitch), a fierce and bitter film adapted from a comic novel by Georges de la Fouchardière.

During the 1930s Jean Renoir produced many of his most notable works, but their freedom of composition was confusing to critics of the period, and the films achieved only middling success. These films include La Nuit du carrefour (1932 Night at the Crossroads), based on a novel by Georges Simenon Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932 Boudu Saved from Drowning), an anarchistic and unconstrained comedy Madame Bovary (1934), based on Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel and Le Crime de M. Lange (1936 The Crime of Monsieur Lange), which, in contrast to the rather stilted manner of the first years of sound films, foretells a reconquest of the true moving-picture style, especially in use of improvisation and of montage—the art of editing, or cutting, to achieve certain associations of ideas.

In 1936, in sympathy with the social movements of the French Popular Front, Renoir directed the communist propaganda film La Vie est à nous (The People of France). The same year, he recaptured the flavour of his early works with a short film, Une Partie de campagne (released 1946 A Day in the Country), which he finished with great difficulty. A masterpiece of impressionist cinema, this film presents all the poetry and all the charm of the pictorial sense that is, far more than his technique, the basis of his art as a filmmaker. The late 1930s saw such major works as La Grande Illusion (1937 Grand Illusion), a moving story of World War I prisoners of war La Bête humaine (1938 The Human Beast, or Judas Was a Woman), an admirable free interpretation of Zola and especially La Règle du jeu (1939 The Rules of the Game), his masterpiece. Cut and fragmented by the distributors, this classic film was also regarded as a failure until it was shown in 1965 in its original form, which revealed its astonishing beauty.

Later years

During World War II, when the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Renoir, like many of his friends, went to Hollywood and continued his career there. His American period includes films of varying merit, which mark a departure from his previous style: Swamp Water (1941), The Southerner (1945), Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), and The Woman on the Beach (1947). In 1944, after being divorced from Catherine Hessling, he married Dido Freire, daughter of Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti. He made The River (1951), his first colour film, in India.

Now in full command of a mature style that reflected the qualities of the man himself—sensitivity, fervour, and humanity—he returned to Europe by way of Italy, where he made Le Carrosse d’or (released 1952 The Golden Coach). A sumptuous work, combining the talents of both a painter and a dramatist, this film shows Renoir’s love of actors and their profession. He occasionally played roles in his own or other directors’ films, and he allowed his actors a great deal of initiative. Subsequently, he made French Cancan (1955), a fabulous evocation of the Montmartre of the 19th century, and Eléna et les hommes (1956 Paris Does Strange Things), a period fantasy swept along in a prodigious movement. His last works, from the 1960s, do not achieve the same beauty, nor does the work he produced for television.

A powerful personality, having been deeply impressed by the artistic environment of his youth, Renoir was also extremely open to later influences both in his art and in his ideas. A naturalized American citizen and settled in Los Angeles, he nevertheless kept his French nationality and maintained connections in Paris. In addition to his films, Renoir also wrote a play, Orvet (first performed 1955), which was presented in Paris a novel, Les cahiers du capitaine Georges (1966 The Notebooks of Captain George) an invaluable book of memories about his father, Renoir (1962) and a memoir of his own life, My Life and My Films (1974).
-Pierre Leprohon

"Jean Renoir". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.


Additional Information:

Jean Renoir - Selected Books:

Renoir, My Father
By Jean Renoir; Introduction by Robert L. Herbert, [USA: Little, Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, 1958, 1962]
New York Review Books Classics

Jean Renoir (1894–1979), the son of the painter Auguste Renoir, was born in Paris, grew up in the south of France, and served as a cavalryman and pilot during World War I. He directed his first film, La Fille de l’eau, in 1925 and followed it with many others, including his masterpieces Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game [La Règle du Jeu](1939). In 1975 Jean Renoir received an Academy Award for his lifetime contribution to the cinema.

Robert L. Herbert, after a long career at Yale, is now Andrew
W. Mellon Professor Emeritus of Humanities at Mount Holyoke. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, and has been named Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government. Among his books are Impressionism: Art, Leisure and Parisian Society, Nature’s Workshop: Renoir’s Writings on the Decorative Arts, and Seurat: Drawings and Paintings.

Renoir, My Father, Introduction, continued


Jean Renoir - Selected Films:

Department of Film, Museum of Modern Art, New York

A Jean Renoir Birthday Celebration
September 14, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
By Charles Silver, Curator, Department of Film
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Jean Renoir’s "The Rules of the Game [La Règle du Jeu]"
March 29, 2011  |  An Auteurist History of Film
By Charles Silver, Curator, Department of Film
Museum of Modern Art, New York

The French Avant-Garde of the 1920s
April 13, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
By Charles Silver, Curator, Department of Film
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Jean Renoir, Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion), 1937
35mm film (black and white, sound), 93 minutes
Gift of Janus Films
Collection: Museum of Modern Art, New York

Renoir’s Grand Illusion is his best–known film and one of his most personal. It includes reminiscences of his World War I experience in the French Flying Corps and pays homage to an early mentor, Erich von Stroheim, who appears as the elegantly civilized commandant of a maximum–security German prison camp. The escape of two French officers is presented as an intellectual game that depends upon the cooperation of soldiers of different nations the act of parting from the other prisoners, indicated by an emotional series of farewells, dominates the film.

While Grand Illusion may be considered the preeminent antiwar movie, it is far more inclusive and universal than that, posing questions about human existence that offer much food for thought. The film is a passionate statement of Renoir’s belief in the commonality of all human beings, regardless of race, class, or nationality, which was to become a pervasive theme in his career. It is that passion, that emotional intensity, that makes Renoir’s entire body of work so distinctive. Whether his films are directed at conjugal love, nature, the theater, the Paris that was, or prisoners of war, Renoir makes the viewer complicit in his obsessive devotion to his subjects.

Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999


Additional Information

Jean Renoir: Selected Images on Art in Context

Jean Renoir: Related Links on Art in Context


Jean Renoir, French (1894–1979)
b. September 15, 1894, Paris
d. 1979

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Art in Context - Art for the Day: September 15

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