Still lifes are often considered a minor genre or a plain subject of study; in fact, the genre is not as static and silent as we think. In the nineteenth century, the genre revealed the intimate bonds that united several Impressionist painters. As discreet witnesses to the daily life of these artists, still lifes can be touching evidences of a friendship or skillfully staged marks of consideration like Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s hommage to Edouard Manet in Nature morte au bouquet à l’éventail (Still Life with Bouquet), 1871.
Emulating the symbolism found in the still lifes of the Golden Age, Renoir offers a sincere tribute to Manet in this painting, as Samuel Lane Faison astutely demonstrated in his 1973 article. The engraving Renoir depicted in the background is after Manet’s eau-forte of Réunion de treize personnages (Reunion of three people, 1861-1862), a painting formerly attributed to Velázquez that Manet admired. Renoir’s hommage extends to the still life’s books and Japanese objects he chose to include, which evoke Manet’s Portrait d’Emile Zola (Portrait of Emile Zola, 1868), and a bouquet of flowers recalling the one Manet painted in Olympia (1863). We know that Renoir and Manet always held one another in great esteem, as evidenced by Manet’s insistence that Henri Fantin-Latour place Renoir at his side in his Atelier aux Batignolles (A Studio at Les Batignolles, 1870).
Other still lifes testify to long working sessions shared with friends, such as these two beautiful bouquets made at the same time but at different angles, one by Renoir, the other by Monet.
Monet and Renoir met in the studio of Professor Charles Gleyre at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1862 and quickly formed a long-lasting friendship. Descended from more modest families than other Impressionist painters, both men overcame economic adversity before meeting success. Among the Impressionists, Monet and Renoir share the largest number of overlapping motifs; Barbara Ehrlich White has listed 29 works representing the same subject, including 11 by Monet and 18 by Renoir. The two artists no longer painted together after 1875 but remained very close friends until Renoir’s death in 1919.
Another pair of still lifes, depicting a melon, almonds, and some figs placed in a plate and two earthenware compote dishes, bespeaks of the intimacy that existed between Renoir and fellow Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte. Here the chosen point of view is almost the same, which allows us to imagine the two artists painting side by side.
Caillebotte’s friendship with Renoir was such that he named Renoir his executor in 1876. Caillebotte was chosen in 1885 to be the godfather of Pierre, the eldest son of Renoir and Aline. Beyond camaraderie, Gustave Caillebotte also provided financial support and essential equipment to his friends, in particular Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir, and financed Impressionist exhibitions thanks to his personal wealth.
Other still lives show that artists used the same objects in their compositions, such as the copper planter seen in one of Renoir’s painting, which belonged to Monet and can be seen in a photograph of his studio in Giverny.
Similarly, the ceramic Virgin of Albert André’s Nature morte, fruits et statuette (Still Life, Fruit and Statue, c. 1890) could well be the same that Renoir painted multiple times. Despite their age difference, André and Renoir developed a strong friendship. André belonged to the circle of close friends accustomed to visiting Collettes, Renoir’s last residence in Cagnes. He benefited from the support of Renoir, who introduced him to his dealer Durand-Ruel and convinced him to accept the position of conservator at Musée de Bagnols-sur-Cèze (now the Musée Albert-André).
Renoir was particularly fond of still lifes, he painted more than 700 over the course of his career. As witnesses to his daily life and artistic friendships, his still lifes also reveal the aesthetic process and his pleasure in repeating certain motifs relentlessly and the certain circular gestures that bring a roundness to all things. In their abundance, still lifes establish a painter’s style, and lay bare the intimate workings of their closest collaborations.