By Richard Brettell, Ph.D., The University of Texas, Dallas
In the summer of 1869, Monet and Renoir painted together at a small outdoor café and bathing establishment in the Seine River near Bougival called La Grenouillère (“the Frog Pond”). Made famous by Realist writers, particularly Guy de Maupassant, this rowdy establishment had been associated with good-natured bawdiness throughout the Second Empire.
Monet and Renoir Side-By-Side
The idea of these two young men, working at the same time in the same landscape together, with no master and no pupil as equals, raised the question not so much of which one was better, but rather, what am I versus what are you? It’s making painting that is about oneself and the way that you handle paint.
Monet takes on his subject very simply. He cuts the view of La Grenouillère right down the middle with a horizontal line in four brush strokes. The landscape occupies the top and the waterscape is below. There are no human figures in the bottom half and no boats in the top half. The lower half is a sort of still life of bobbing boats on the water, waiting to be rented. The upper half has a terrific group of small figures.
Monet paints wonderful, tiny details. The women are chatting away, trying to figure out whether to join the bathers in the water. The bathers are all pink on top, which means they’re men and all sorts of exciting things could be happening in the water. The clothed women, off to the left, are perhaps going to rent a bathing cabin so that they too can join their compatriots in the fun and games of a beautiful afternoon. This painting, though it does have its human element, is really much more about water, wind, light, and reflection than it is about the human drama. The figures are here to enliven that portion of the picture.
This is a transcript from the video series From Monet to Van Gogh: A History of Impressionism. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.
When Monet painted this scene, it was changing in front of his eyes. The boats are moving. In fact, the ghost of one is in the paint. In all likelihood, there was a boat there, someone rented it, and off it went in the course of Monet painting it. Monet simply turns it into reflections. The same thing happens with the figures. The people are moving as he paints them. Monet takes what he wants from this shifting world of flux, a world which the French came to call a champ de vision, a “field of vision”: a world of leisure, a world of inebriation, a world of wetness, a world of light and extraordinary shifts of light.
Learn more about Monet, whose Impression: Sunrise gave the name to the new style
Monet covers every square inch of the entire canvas with strokes of paint. Not one part of it is more interesting or more boring than the other. He’s painting the entire landscape as if it comes at one blow into his head, and he hurls it directly onto canvas, using big brushes, making large strokes. They’re made with fat paint—not thinned with oil or turpentine—and it sits there on the surface. These long marks on the surface are extraordinary: their very directness, linearity, and the idea that he’s forming this field of vision, make his landscape one of the most dramatic, powerful, and important in the history of art.
Renoir’s Style in Contrast
In contrast, Renoir’s version is much more silvery. It has fewer contrasts between extreme light and extreme dark. It’s much more highly populated and the figures in it are its subject. The boats in the foreground—though interesting and nicely painted—don’t share Monet’s quality of being a still life of boats.
Learn more about Renoir, Pissarro, and Cézanne
Renoir’s composition is much less direct. There’s no line through the center. There is a circle, which was called the Camembert, like a Camembert cheese wheel. The French made a joke of this little island. The area to the right is the area where people drink, with the idea that once you get a little pleasantly tipsy, you have to cross one of the small narrow planks pictured to get to the Camembert. The painting doesn’t depict anyone falling in, but the viewer imagines the woman in the pink dress carefully making her way across this narrow plank, back to relative safety.
For Renoir, it is the softness and sensuality of this place and its human population that is so important. The viewer can count more than a dozen figures. Clearly the audience can see what gender they are and what kind of clothes they’re wearing. The landscape is recessive and soft. There’s a vast distance between the Camembert and the opposite shore of the Seine, with its gray-green willow trees. He’s giving us very particular information in this broadly painted sketch. There’s a marvelous boat on the left, giving a sense of transience to the picture. But it doesn’t have the kind urgent quality that the Monet has. It doesn’t because Renoir had a different artistic style from Monet.
Learn more about approaches to European art
Renoir was a sensual artist. Look carefully at Renoir’s painting. Almost every single touch of his paintbrush on the surface has a little curve to it. His paint strokes are plump, rather than flat. There’s a sensuality and a variety of strokes. One feels Renoir has a whole magic variety of painted strokes, whereas Monet had one kind of stroke, and he painted everything with that stroke. He was a systematic artist.
Common Questions About Monet and Renoir
Renoir painted in a style known as Impressionism, defined by light brush strokes, everyday subject matter, and movement.
Instead of portraying the typical subjects of art—political figures, royalty, and religion—the Impressionist painters were revolutionary in that they chose to paint ordinary people and scenes of everyday life.
Monet and Renoir were similar in that they both captured the fleeting nature of time.
Monet was different from Renoir in that he had a looser style while Renoir had a tighter, more controlled style. Additionally, Renoir focused more on people in his paintings while Monet gravitated more toward landscapes.