Pierre-Auguste Renoir, On Chatou Island, circa 1879Back
Who doesn’t occasionally wish that they could escape from everyday life to seek peace on an idyllic island, away from the hustle and bustle, to forget the passage of time and to dream as water laps gently and a gentle wind stirs the leaves and the grass on the shore? Where better to immerse oneself than in this enchanting natural setting, brought before our eyes by Renoir in such a magical and atmospheric way? Lushly verdant and glowing with many colors, the greenery of the Île Chatou, before the gates of Paris, pours towards us in an opulent jungle flood, connecting in a finely woven way with the sky and the water. Seen close to, it appears astonishingly abstract.
The two figures in the picture show two different possible ways of immersing oneself in nature. The female person — in her elegant “Sunday” clothes — is turning toward us, and looks as though she is posing for a photograph. Her bearing is erect, and her hands are held together to best advantage as she smiles engagingly, not without pride and vanity. The male figure is very different; his back is turned to us as he busies himself on the shore. Perhaps he is tying up a boat, or fishing for a basket sunk into the water, filled with cooled drinks. One shows moments of happiness and a proud pose amid magnificent nature; the other shows industrious concentration on a purpose, on what needs doing at that moment, without perceiving the beauty around him. There is no question that these are clichés, and yet they also reflect bourgeois attitudes to leisure time in the late nineteenth century.
Renoir understands how to illuminate the chameleon-like multitude of colors in nature, and how to spread it across the composition with virtuosity, like gentle clouds. Of course, from today’s perspective, we cannot see this beauty without suspecting it of being kitschy. And yet the atmospheric effects of the light, the seeming “purity” of nature, the liberating distance from the city and from social norms still conveys a liberating energy to us today, despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that we are living in a very different age, one in which nature faces a positively apocalyptic level of danger that would not have been believed possible just a few decades ago. Perhaps it is precisely in this that we recognize the melancholy magic of this picture, beyond the clichés and sentimentally sweet impressions.