Van Goghs Favorites IV: Paul Renouard, the Zola of Drawing
“There is life in every little pencil stroke.”
Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh
Nuenen, 4 or 5 May 1885
“When I think how he rose to such a height by working from the very beginning from nature, without imitating others, and how he is none the less in harmony with the very clever people, even in technique, though from the very first he had his own style, I find him again a proof that by truly following nature one's work improves every year.”
Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh
Nuenen, c. 24 January 1885
The comparisons which van Gogh drew in his letters in order to bring the journalistic illustrator Paul Renouard, whom he so admired, close to his brother Theo and his artist friend van Rappard, do not really hold. He used the sculptural, caricature-like manner of an Honoré Daumier or Paul Garvani and the rustic artistic approach of a Jean-François Millet, but they miss the aim of describing what is so characteristic of Renouard’s drawings. It would take some time before van Gogh gained the possibilities – through his acquaintance with the circles of Impressionist artists in Paris – to more precisely classify this position, which is totally singular in the field of reportage drawing. However, the more van Gogh’s efforts to achieve expression with colours, the peinture, came to the fore, the less he dealt with contemporary illustrated journal graphics. He gradually lost sight of the work of the Renouard, who was eight years his elder and dedicated to a very similar artistic synthesis.
Paul Renouard was the most productive and most published journalistic illustrator, along with his English colleague of the same age, Melton Prior. Both were exponents of a second generation of ‘special artists’, who began to work in the heyday of graphic reportage, when the expanding illustrated journal business sought to quench the audience’s steadily growing thirst for pictures by means of ever more sophisticated and effective reproduction methods. They were active up until the first decades of the 20th century, at a time when drawn documentations appeared merely as scattered islands in a sea of blurred photographic pictures.
Unlike their predecessors, these draughtsmen were not concerned with laboriously overcoming late-Baroque and classicist patterns. They had become wandering eyes, incessantly on the go and accelerated by the modernized means of transport. While the Briton Melton Prior, as illustrator of the Empire’s colonial expansion, reeled from one exotic battlefield to the next, his French colleague, as a representative of the Third Republic permeated by extreme social discordance, scoured nearly all conceivable regions of civilian everyday life.
Until his death in 1924, Renouard had left behind a huge oeuvre, comprising, apart from his paintings, eleven extensive print portfolios, several illustrated books, as well as innumerable works for French, British and American illustrated journals. In their entirety, his reportages in drawing, which are all masterpieces of this genre, are a mirror of late 19th-century society elucidated with mechanical precision. In its encyclopaedic scope, his work appears as a graphical counterpart of Zola’s Rougon Macquart cycle.
Joris Karl Huysmans, himself one of the best-known exponents of literary naturalism who distinguished himself as one of the leading art critics of his day along with his mentor Emile Zola, in the early 1880s warned the fine artists, especially the Impressionists he so favoured, that a lot still needed to be done: “All of modern life has yet to be studied; scarcely a few of its multiple facets have been noticed and noted. Everything is to be done; the official galas, the salons, the balls, the many aspects of familiar life, the life of artisans and bourgeois, the shops, the markets, the restaurants, the cafés, ... all of humanity to whatever class it belongs, no matter what function it fulfils, in the home, in hospitals, in public dance halls, in the squares, in the streets of the poor or on the vast boulevards.” (1)
The only one who truly responded to this appeal was Paul Renouard, whom Huysmans held in high esteem. However, he could only succeed in realizing such a broad documentary project in the genuine medium of illustrated journal reportage by risking his reputation as an artist. Although the avant-garde of the times with its central demand for actualité benefited highly from the model of press graphics, both artists and critics looked down on this field of applied artistic practice with growing depreciation and occasionally with open contempt. Only the movements of the late 1880s and 1890s, the Nabis and the artists of art nouveau were willing to cross the border between ‘high’ and ‘low’ with an altered understanding of art’s social function. Renouard, then, undertook a ticklish balancing act when, as an established Salon artist, he began producing “those things” – as van Gogh liked to cite to his narrow-minded colleagues – “which you can find on the reading table of the South Holland Cafe”. Although he was awarded several prizes and medals towards the end of his life, his oeuvre has received no acknowledgement whatsoever from an art historiography that still strictly judges according to outdated genre hierarchies.
He was artistically trained by the historical painter Isidore Pils. In view of the prominent role that the reportage sketch had gradually taken on in his own work, Pils was able to shape his students accordingly. For the evolution of artistic reportage in France, his art seems to have had a catalysing function comparable to that of Menzel’s painting in Germany.(2)
Since 1877, Renouard’s paintings had been shown at the large annual Salon exhibitions. After Pierre-Auguste Renoir moved out in 1884, he was able to use his studio in Paris. Critics often set the art of both in relation, for along with the coincidental consonance of their names, both were united by an artistic mutuality in the whirring style of their paintings and drawings.
First publications in L’Illustration, the leading French illustrated journal of the day, already emphasized the core of his artistic concept, the obsessive capturing of instantaneousness, of the snapshot-like moment. These are sequences of motion studies in the style of phase pictures as they were used in the praxinoscope of the time. The way they were placed on the sheet reveal his knowledge of Hokusai’s manga. At the height of his career, in his magnum opus, the portfolio “Mouvements; Gestes; Expressions” comprising 204 etchings from 1905, Renouard frequently fell back on this initial method of arranging individual motion studies like in a kaleidoscope.
The principle of spatial conglomeration, the assembly of apparently coherent pictorial views out of the most heterogeneous fragments, can be found in his entire oeuvre. In this respect, he seems to have benefited a lot from his model, Edgar Degas, eleven years his elder, who when developing his montage method had in turn fallen back on and radicalized models drawn from illustrated journal graphics. He was initially close to him in regard to the motifs as well. Like Degas, he primarily dealt with places and situations in which intimacy and the public subtly mesh. For example, both worked almost simultaneously on the theme of the observing viewer of pictures in a museal space. Renouard’s first illustrated book, “Les pensionnaires du Louvre”, was published in 1880, at a time when Degas was working on a series of etchings showing his acquaintance, the artist Mary Cassatt, looking at pictures in the Louvre. In the subsequent portfolio, “Le Nouvel Opéra“, which appeared in 1881, Renouard then mainly concentrated on incidental situations in areas behind the scenes, a theme Degas had been successful with a few years earlier in painting.
Yet he soon left behind the limitations inherent to rendering details of reality, which bourgeois flâneurs like Edgar Degas, James Tissot or Gustave Caillebotte had concentrated on, and instead dedicated himself to the much broader range of themes that the challenges of the everyday journalistic illustration business had to offer. He captured exciting battles of words in parliament and at court with the same retinal precision as the everyday routines in administration or the activities on a large construction site, the glamorous world of representations as well as the places of state punishment and persecution that were difficult to access. His graphic report on the misery of widespread joblessness, created in 1884 during the second weaver’s revolt in Lyon, made an especially big impression on van Gogh, who had collected his graphics for years.
At the end of the 1880s, he was contracted by the London Graphic. The journal’s publisher, William Luson Thomas, a committed supporter of social-critical art and an advocate of artistically expressive press graphics, had complained about the decline of drawing under the dictate of Impressionist painting shortly before, in a text for the Universal Review in September 1888. After all the formative artists of his illustrated journal, such as Hubert Herkomer, Luke Fildes or Frank Holl, had drifted on to the much more respectable and lucrative business of Victorian portrait and genre painting, he was faced with increasing difficulties in finding skilled young artists.
Renouard’s artistic concept harmonized wonderfully with Luson Thomas’ views and intentions, and it didn’t take long before he became the Graphic’s star draughtsman. He did continue to publish in French illustrated journals, but started working more and more in London. One of the consequences was that Emile Bayard entirely ignored him in his survey work on French illustration art that appeared in 1898.(3) His drawing of the Dreyfus trial mark the peak of his career as a ‘special artist’. Almost the entire elite of international event graphics attended this central media spectacle at the end of the 19th century, but it was foremost the extremely succinct works of Renouard that then dominated the after-image in the media.
In her highly informative study on the impact of Renouard’s social reportages on the art of van Gogh, the influential American art historian Linda Nochlin, close to thirty years ago, already called for the acknowledgement of the equal worth of their artistic achievements: “This study may also suggest that we rethink the actual position of van Gogh vis-à-vis journalistic illustrators like Renouard. Instead of seeing van Gogh as the important creative artist and the illustrators simply as aesthetically negligible minor sources of his inspiration, perhaps it would be more realistic to think of them all as fellow art workers, interested in the same subjects, moved by similar humanitarian impulses (...), and interested in developing similar naturalistic and expressive techniques.” (4)
Until now, this call has remained almost without consequences. What is still missing is a fundamental revision in the assessment of the artistic achievements of illustration graphics in the 19th and early 20th century. In the case of Renouard, whose special avant-garde position in the field of press graphics Nolin did not discuss at all, it would be advisable to grant him an outstanding position in the league of Impressionist and naturalistic artists, a position that would do justice to the extraordinary consistency and brilliance of his oeuvre.
1) Cited in Gabriel P. Weisberg, The Realist Tradition: Critical Theory and the Evolution of Social Themes, in: The Realist Tradition, ed. Weisberg, Cleveland 1980, p. 4.
2) Cf. MePri Feature by Christoph Kappler: Isidore Pils: History Painter and “Realist Reporter”
3) Emile Bayard, L´Illustration et Les Illustrateurs, Paris 1898
4) Linda Nochlin, Van Gogh, Renouard, and the Weaver´s Crisis in Lyons, in: Studies in Honor of H.W. Janson, 1981. Newly published in: L. Nochlin, The Politics of Vision. Essays of Nineteenth – Century Art and Society, New York 1989
Paul Renouard in the MePri Collection:
Louis Leroy, Paul Renouard (Illu.), Les Pensionnaires du Louvre, Paris / London 1880
Paul Renouard, Rome pendant la Semaine Sainte, Paris 1891
Harold Cox, Parliamentary Pictures and Personalities, London 1893
Cherbourg - Paris -Chalons, 5 - 9 octobre 1896, Paris ? St. Petersbourg 1896
Dreyfus the Martyr, recorded by pen and pencil, special edition of The Graphic, London 1899
Antony Aubin, Affaire Steinheil. Croquis d´Audience par P. Renouard, Sabattier, Georges Scott, Paris 1909
Enid Rose, First Studies in Dramatic Art. (including reproductions from etchings by Paul Renouard ), London 1926
Portfolio with 34 individual sheets from The Graphic
Works in L´Illustration, Le Monde illustré, Tour du Monde, Revue Illustrée, The Illustrated London News, Harpers Weekly
Selection of five autographed etchings from the portfolio ?Mouvements, Gestes Expressions?, 1905
Three drawings: Portrait, Scène d'école de Marine , Les Hommes Jurant
Joseph Pennell, Pendrawing and Pendraughtsmen, London - New York 1889
Joseph Pennell, Die moderne Illustration, Leipzig, 1895
Joseph Pennell, The Graphic Arts (The Scammon Lectures), Chicago 1920
Ronald Pickvance, English influences on Vincent van Gogh , London 1974
Gabriel P. Weisberg, The Realist Tradition: French Painting and Drawing, 1830 - 1900, Cleveland 1980
Paul Hogarth, The Artist as Reporter, London 1986
Norman L.Kleeblatt, The Dreyfus Affair. Art, Truth & Justice, Los Angeles, 1987
Linda Nochlin, The Politics of Vision: Essays on nineteenth-century art and society, New York 1989