Renoir was born in Montmartre, in 1894, second son of
Impressionist painter, Auguste Renoir, and his wife Aline
Victorine Charigot. Aline was 18 years Auguste's junior
and had been a seamstress before becoming his model.
Jean spent much of his childhood in the countryside
at Essoyes, developing the love of nature which is a
constant feature of his work. It was here that his view
of women was derived directly from his father's influence.
His family circle and the friends and models who surrounded
his father also had a lasting effect of him. He was
devoted to his nurse, Gabrielle Renard, who first taught
him to adore melodrama.
In 1901, on the birth of his younger brother Claude
(Coco), Jean was sent to school at the College de Sainte-Croix,
Neuilly. He found it difficult to understand why the
other boys were so obsessed with nudes - as the son
of an artist, he had been brought up with them!
In 1913, Jean enlisted in a Dragoon regiment for three
years and served as both a cavalry officer and a pilot.
In the War he was wounded several times, including a
serious leg injury. His mother hastened to his side
and forbade amputation (which would have killed him),
however, the journey in her poor state of health (she
had diabetes) led to her death a short time later. His
injury left him with a permanent limp and pain. Even
40 years later the wound could suddenly start bleeding.
When he left the army, he worked as a ceramic artist
but was fascinated by the cinema, particularly D W Griffiths
In 1917, Auguste Renoir had a lively, red-headed sixteen-year-old
called Andree Heuchling model for him. Jean was attracted
to her and a month after his father's death, he married
her (January 1920). In 1921, their son, Alain was born.
Jean Renoir's chief passions were cinema and motor
cars. In 1924, he decided to go into films to make his
wife - under the professional name of Catherine Hessling
- a star.
Catherine starred in La Fille De L'Eau (1924), Nana
(1926) and The Little Match Girl (1928). In Nana, an
adaptation of Zola's novel, Renoir was influenced by
Stroheim and German Expressionism.
In the early 30s, Renoir met Marguerite Heulle, who
became his film editor and later his mistress, changing
her surname to Renoir. She was involved with the trades
union, the communists and women's suffrage movements
(women did not have the vote in France until 1944.)
From this time, Renoir's films show strong social and
political sensitivity to the inequality of the French
class structure and sympathy for the working class.
The bleak pessimism and anarchic escapes from bourgeois
conventions depicted in his films, are partly a response
to the depression of the early 30s. Toni (1934) is a
tragedy that stems from the poverty and hopelessness
of its characters. It introduced a new social concern
into Renoir's work.
In 1935, The Crime of M. Lange was made by Renoir and
the left-wing theatre company Groupe Octobre. It is
the first of his films to convey optimism of the rise
of the Popular Front. He went on to direct a campaign
film for the French Communist Party.
The film which brought him international recognition
was La Grande Illusion (1937), an anti-war film set
in the Great War. Goebbels called him "Cinematographic
Enemy Number One" and the film was banned in Germany
and the negatives destroyed.
Du Jeu (1939) is now regarded as Renoir' s masterpiece,
but at the time it provoked public hostility and abuse
and was banned by the government for being "demoralising".
Renoir, who had himself appeared in the film as one
of the central characters, never recovered from this
reaction to the film.
By 1939, Renoir's affair with Marguerite was over and
he had become close to Dido Freire, a Brazilian family
friend. They were to marry in 1944.
In 1940, Renoir was working on a film in Italy when
the Italian government joined the Axis. He and Dido
managed to get an exit visa and travelled via Marseilles,
Casablanca and Lisbon to the USA where he was welcomed
Here, however, he became subject to the studio system
and could not work as a writer-director without having
key decisions - such as casting - made for him. Every
idea Renoir put forward for a film was rejected by Darryl
F Zanuck. Renoir wrote: " Hollywood is an immense
machine, an admirable mechanism without a soul."
Zanuck said: " Renoir has a lot of talent, but
he isn't one of us." Renoir left Hollywood.
Renoir worked in India on The River (1950), his first
colour film. Here, he inspired Satyajit Ray to become
a film director. He then returned to work in Europe,
where he directed The Golden Coach in Italy and French
Cancan (1954) in Paris. Although working in Europe,
he kept a permanent home in California.
He wrote a biography of his father (1962) as well as
memoirs, novels, short stories and plays.
1975, there was a Retrospective of his work at the National
Film Theatre in London. The same year he was awarded
a special Oscar, which was accepted on his behalf by
his friend Ingrid Bergman.
He died peacefully in California and was buried beside
his family in Essoyes.
Jean Renoir is remembered as a man of great warmth,
who combined enthusiasm with an impulsive lack of discipline.
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