The great impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir lived in the charming little village of Essoyes, in the Aube department of Champagne-Ardennes from 1896 until 1907. I was privileged to one one of the first British journalists to enter the home of the painter since it was sold by the family to the town he once loved. I found his presence is still there…
The House of Renoir, Essoyes
At this very pretty, but rather modest house, Pierre August Renoir lived with this wife Aline, a native of Essoyes, and his three sons, Claude, Jean and Pierre. Although today we hold the painter in the highest esteem and his artworks are worth a small fortune, he didn’t make much money during his life time and only really started to be able to sell his work for a good price when he reached the ripe old age of 60.
The painter certainly loved Paris where he met Aline, a seamstress who became his model, and it was she who persuaded him to leave the city and move to the countryside of Essoyes. Against his will, he fell in love with the rural village where he said the bread and butter were far superior to anything one would find in Paris. The sight of the mist over the vineyards must have been as moving a sight for Renoir as it is for us today looking from his front gate. Just around the corner is the Chemin des Laveuses, a little alley leading to a stream where Renoir loved to paint the young and beautiful girls washing clothes.
The countryside inspired and moved him to paint almost daily. In fact in old age when he could hardly move his hand because of the arthritis that deformed his fingers and, confined to a wheelchair, he still carried on, a paint brush placed between his fingers, bandages wound tight to hold it. “Painting is better than walking” he announced; it was his life.
The house where he had lived stayed in the family until it was sold by Renoir’s granddaughter to the town of Essoyes. I was lucky enough to be among a small group allowed to enter and see it before any work was carried out. It opened to the public in 2017.
As I stood looking out of the dusty window of Renoir’s bedroom, over the faded and flaked paint of the window sill it was easy to imagine him doing the same thing a century before. Would it rain today or would the sun shine brightly through this atelier window at the bottom of the garden, lighting the faces of his models and making the room warm and cosy. His old bed frame was tucked in a corner, the light poured in. The floor creaks and the wallpaper is peeling but it doesn’t matter. The view is hardly changed, the village is recognisable, you feel his presence.
He painted in the upstairs of this house until he could afford to have a studio built at the bottom of the garden which is now open to the public. It’s bijou inside, a paint spattered floor and the suitcase in which he transported his paintings to Paris in one corner. A recording of laughter and chat give an impression of the sounds Renoir would hear as he created his masterpieces, shut your eyes and you can almost see him, frowning at the canvas and telling the girls to be still.
I can’t help thinking that if he were to walk back in, Renoir would certainly still know this old house, especially the kitchen with its faded tiles and dark cupboards. Perhaps he does recognise it after all for he was buried in the local cemetery within sight of the home he loved. He insisted the slab over his grave be thinner than that of his beloved Aline, buried behind him. It needs to be shallower, he announced, as he had every intention of getting out and going for a walk.
The house is almost bare. There are a few chairs and a table, an old bed frame or two, a cupboard and an old bike. Yet if you listen hard and close your eyes, you can almost hear him chuckle as he takes his walk around the old house and the village of Essoyes…