25 Mar How Renoir Painted the Illusion of a Crowd of People without Painting Faces – Pont Neuf at the National Gallery of Art
Today, I visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and I was especially captivated by Renoir’s Painting Pont Neuf, Paris. It is a relatively large painting that, from a distance, seems to be filled with people, doing a variety of things. When I moved closer to the painting, however, I could see that Renoir had essentially painted only swaths of colors. Although he had added a few details that vaguely looked like facial feature, on a couple of heads, most of the figures were completely faceless.
Auguste Renoir (French, Limoges 1841–1919 Cagnes-sur-Mer)
Pont Neuf, Paris
Oil on canvas
20 1/2 x 24 7/8 in.
The man in the front and center of the painting seems to be walking, reading a book. His faceless dog is following him.
Two children are with a mother who has a few crude lines where her facial features might be, if she had clear facial features, but her children are faceless. They are almost formless.
A man and a lady with a parasol are standing with a person that might be their daughter. None of these people have facial features.
There are two groups of people and one individual male behind this family.
The boy on the right has the clearest face of any of the others in the painting, but it is still not a fully developed face.
The lady and the two boys with blue robes are almost totally indistinguishable.
In fact, until this lady is paired with the man in the uniform, we cannot tell which way she is facing.
When you look at Renoir’s hasty style in his painting Pont Neuf, you might be tempted to think that Renoir lacked the technical control to paint more realistically, But that is not the case. Two years before he painted Pont Neuf, Renoir painted Odalisque, and it is a technical masterpiece. Renoir was a master painter. We are left to assume that he had reasons for painting Pont Neuf with his quick, slashes of color and his energetic brushwork, and as we begin to understand why Renoir painted Pont Neuf as he did, we begin to understand the thrust of Impressionism.