How to recognize Renoir: The Swing

Pierre Auguste Renoir, The Swing (La balançoire), 1876, oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)
Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] How do you recognize the work of Pierre Auguste Renoir, the great Impressionist painter?

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:10] Renoir is always interested in the human figure and interactions between human figures. But he’s equally interested in capturing the effects of outdoor light.

Dr. Zucker: [0:22] There’s also so often a real sense of sensuous pleasure, a pleasure in the interaction of the figures.

Dr. Harris: [0:28] I think there’s often flirting going on.

[0:30] [laughs]

Dr. Zucker: [0:31] Yes, there is.

Dr. Harris: [0:31] That’s clearly what’s happening here. We have this wonderful exchange of glances, much more than his colleague, Monet. We really have attention to human figures, their faces, their expressions. And so although the key male figure in the foreground has his back to us, we still get a real sense of who he is.

Dr. Zucker: [0:51] Look at the arch of his back. He’s got his left hand in his pocket. His left leg is slightly bent. His right hand seems to be gesturing. All of his attention is focused on the young girl who stands on a swing to his right.

Dr. Harris: [1:06] He feels quite certain of his ability to interest this very young woman.

Dr. Zucker: [1:10] But she’s being a bit coy. She does not return his glance. She’s looking off to her left even as her arms are open to him.

Dr. Harris: [1:17] Everyone is posed so naturalistically. We really feel like we’ve got a caught moment in time here. The male figure who faces us, who’s partially obscured by that tree, you can see his right hand holding the side of that tree as he relaxes his body against it, and [a] little girl who clasps her hands and looks up at the man who’s doing the flirting.

Dr. Zucker: [1:37] The glances are complicated. The man who faces away from us is looking at the girl. The girl looks off to her left. The man who faces us seems to be looking directly at the other male figure, and the girl seems to be enjoying the interaction between the two.

Dr. Harris: [1:52] That exchange of glances is very typical of Renoir, but it’s balanced by this overwhelming interest in painting the effects of outdoor light. This was likely largely painted out-of-doors. We have this effect of dappled sunlight on the ground, of that sunlight streaming through the trees.

Dr. Zucker: [2:15] This was an aspect that the critics were particularly unhappy with.

Dr. Harris: [2:18] Well, there are touches of pinks and purples to stand for sunlight and shadow. This is not the way that artists were supposed to paint light and shadow according to the rules of the Academy and the School of Fine Arts in Paris.

Dr. Zucker: [2:32] There’s also this exaggeration, this amplification of color. The shadows are bluish-purple. The whites from the sun are pinks and yellows and oranges. There’s a heightened coloration, a heightened sensitivity to the moment.

Dr. Harris: [2:46] I can imagine Renoir looking at this landscape, looking at this scene, and saying to himself, “I’m going to forget what I was taught about how to paint, how to draw, how to render forms in three-dimensional space using light and shadow and contour.

[3:01] “If I forgot all those things and suddenly opened my eyes, what colors would I see? What shapes would I see?” A kind of naive eye that seeks to forget the teachings of how to make art and to just be very open to visual, optical experiences.

Dr. Zucker: [3:19] Form is constructed here mostly with color and with tone, with light. There are no sharp edges. There are no sharp contours. There are no lines that help define form. This is one observed color against another.

Dr. Harris: [3:33] That loose brushwork, that sketchiness, is one of the hallmarks of Impressionism and certainly something that went against the rules of the Academy. There is a real sense too of imbalance here.

Dr. Zucker: [3:45] You have three figures on one side and a tree, and then you only have the woman on the right.

Dr. Harris: [3:50] Look at the rope that holds the swing. It bows out. You almost have a sense that as she’s stepping up on that swing with one foot, there’s a tippiness. It’s an imbalance there that is part of the structure of the painting itself.

Dr. Zucker: [4:04] Despite the fact that the painting feels like it’s entirely in motion, this is also a careful figural study.

Dr. Harris: [4:11] What we’re noticing is that even though this seems so spontaneous and such a sense of a caught moment, this is, nevertheless, a very carefully composed painting.

[4:21] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "How to recognize Renoir: The Swing," in Smarthistory, April 8, 2018, accessed July 13, 2024,