A. V. Lunacharsky 1933

The Man Who Painted Happiness
(In Viewing the Canvases of Renoir)

Written: 1933;
Translator: Y. Ganuskin;
Source: A. Lunacharsky: On Literature and Art Progress Publishers, 1973;
Transcribed: Harrison Fluss for marxists.org, February 2008.


Not long ago I had occasion to spend a few days in Paris. My visit happened to coincide with an exhibition of paintings by one of the greatest – perhaps the greatest – French impressionist, Renoir.

Renoir lived to be very old. When he was nearing seventy he began to develop terrible rheumatism of his hands, which were gradually transformed into something like hooks or bird’s claws.

Ever day, almost until the very day of his death, the famous artist would sit down at his easel, get himself into a position in which he could use his left hand to guide his right, and say:

“E-eh...no, mustn’t let a day go by without work!”

“Why are you so persistent?” a visiting admirer once asked him.

Renoir, completely absorbed in his canvas, replied:

“But there is no greater pleasure!”

And added:

“And then, it’s a duty, in a way.”

At this point the eighty-year-old master glanced up at his interrogator with a smile and went on:

“And if a man has neither pleasures nor duties, then what’s the good of his going on living?”

It is not, of course, our intention here to give a list of all Renoir’s masterpieces or to analyse the part played by his school in the history of art, or by him-in his school. It is another question which claims our attention here: What exactly was Renoir looking for in his art and what was he trying to achieve?

Here, however, we must make a brief diversion.

Not long ago, the extremely interesting letters of another French genius, Nicolas Poussin, the leader of seventeenth-century classic school of painting, appeared in print.

Poussin, as might have been expected from a great artist whose art is dominated by the mind, was not only himself a man of powerful intellect, but shared the general conviction of his age that intellect was the primal factor in cultural life.

“Painting,” Poussin maintains, “is, for the artist, a constant exercise in ‘seeing’ in order thereafter to teach others to see the world aright with the help of his drawings and pictures.”

“But,” Poussin adds hastily, “it would be quite wrong to think of ‘seeing’ as of an act involving the eyes alone. It is not just a matter of distinguishing colours, and, thanks to that, the outlines of things, or of the fine arrangement of distances, or in general, of reproducing nature as exactly as possible. ‘To see’ should mean to assimilate a given object or system of objects into one’s own inner world, as a good or as an evil, as something lofty which is as it should be, or on the contrary, as something imperfect which is striving towards greater perfection, and so on. Living beings, and, particularly, people reveal their general character and what they are feeling at that particular moment when you see them. But, for the true ‘seer’, even buildings or an arrangement of water and plants, can express distinct values: a sublime order, austerity, tenderness and so forth.”

Modern psychology has long since found an expression to indicate “superficial vision” and “deep vision.” The first it calls “perception,” the act of nothing something, and the second “apperception,” a word for which the Russian language offers several splendid alternatives, the beauty of which will become clear to the reader if he will pause to think about them: expressions such as understanding, assimilation, mastery of the subject, and so forth.

All these expressions mean that a given object or system of objects is absorbed, by means of a certain complex effort, to become a part of the artist’s philosophy of life.

If certain elements of the outside world observed by a real artist appear in his work, then this means that he has assimilated them; in the picture or in the story they appear as a part of the author’s own “world.”

Three elements are essential if this process of apperception is to take place: the subject, his “world,” that is, the determinant of whatever feeling for and understanding of the world go to make up his personal philosophy, and the object, existing in its own right before assimilation. Here, we a particularly obvious example of the principle of class self-determination at work in the artist, for, in the last analysis, apperception is simply the assimilation, of an object by a class or social group through the medium of the artist.

Now that the austere and, at the same time, clever Poussin has helped us to find the answer to our general question, let us try to find Renoir’s personal answer to the question: What am I looking for – for myself and others – all painting?


After the great bourgeois revolution in France it was the bourgeoisie, upper and middle, who became the ruling class. The petty bourgeoisie, although it had played a very active part during the revolution, was relegated to the background.

The ruling section of the bourgeoisie, which had made itself the champion of the principle of the “golden mean,” adhered to this principle in art as well. Their art was academic, often deriving from antique art, often from the realism of the Renaissance. It was, on the whole, an honest conscientious art, sometimes even great (Ingres), but it was profoundly stable and profoundly conservative.

The petty bourgeoisie, as in other spheres of art, opposed to this stability the principle of romanticism under the leadership of several distinguished exponents of this school, the greatest of whom was Delacroix.

The whole manner of the romantics, particularly their use of colour, was distinguished by nervosity and brilliance and was more inclined, by virtue of its very intensity, to contrast with reality than to learn from it. In the ideological sense, the romantics seldom went further than opposing various aspects of exoticism to the mundane.

In the meantime, capitalism marched forward with iron tread. It steadily increased the importance of science in everyday life. It created a wide group comprising the bearers of scientific knowledge – the technical intelligentsia. This technical intelligentsia considered itself in part to be the bourgeoisie’s apprentice and, as always happens in such cases, split off into groups ranging from the servilely submissive to the indignant and explicitly discontent, although the latter could see no way of ridding themselves of their “hard taskmaster.”

All these moods found expression in realistic art as a whole, including painting, the greatest representative of which was the “non-party communard” Courbet.

Here we bring our lightning survey of the development of petty-bourgeois nineteenth-century art in France up to the moment which is of particular interest to us, the moment concerned with Renoir.

The very term “realism” acquired a dual interpretation.

The first definition was: “Reality is an object which I observe.”

This definition is correct, materialist: yet the so-called realist artists of the last decades of the nineteenth century (even Courbet) had their own, conventionalised understanding of this reality. They saw it as they had long been used to see it, and portrayed it as they were accustomed to portray it, so that the result was a kind of “naïve realism” on the basis of studio conventions.

Under the influence of the greatly increased numbers of the technical intelligentsia, artists began to introduce elements of “scientific experiment” in their methods of observation. The second definition of reality began to take pride of place: “Reality is the result of my observation.”

This definition – not materialist this time, but positivist – could only be reconciled with materialism given the following interpretation: a true, socially valid portrayal of reality (like that which, as we have seen, Poussin was searching for in the seventeenth century) is a result of the attentive and conscientious observation of reality.

However, the French intelligentsia of the end of the nineteenth century – in the persons of the leaders of its artistic avant-garde (Manet and Monet) – was not particularly interested either in material reality or in the possibility of organising social forces through their pictures...These artists considered themselves sons of science whose mission it was to free art from the tyranny of the studio, sons who desired to show things exactly as they saw them: in the fresh air, by various lights, and so on and so forth. This is why their movement received such a subjective-sounding name as “impressionism.”

So now we have, once again, arrived at Renoir.

Renoir was an impressionist. He owed a great deal to impressionism. It chased him out of the dark studio. Impressionism opened his eyes to the immediate, picturesque and sensual beauty of the sunlight. It taught him all the hidden luxury of colour in what had formerly seemed to be merely brown or grey shadows. It revealed to his talented and sensitive eye all the vibrations of light and colour on the surfaces of objects and in the space between them. It gave him the possibility of admiring, and of helping others to admire, the rich, generous, enchanting, joyful play of colours.

The impressionist Renoir was above all an artist enamoured of a myriad shades of colour, of tone, for which the world of objects served, so to speak, as a mere scaffolding.

The world of objects itself was of less interest to our artist. Space, structure, beauty and purity of line and, together with these, the sense behind that which was going on in time and space, seemed to be left out of account. These were not considered to be the artist’s business. The business of the artist was blissfully to drink in the dance of colours, the songs of light and the profound accompaniment of shadow.

Of course, this was no mere kaleidoscope: it was a whole world. Renoir’s pictures show landscapes, flowers, children, women, small and large groups of people. But they are all shown as fireworks of remarkable elegance and variety of colour.

Renoir is too great to be contained by impressionism: he is one of the greatest artists of humanist painting. He himself was not averse to emphasising this, and it was not by chance that he liked to hear his name mentioned in one breath with the great, triumphant name of Tiziano Vecellio di Cadorna, one of the titans of the Renaissance.

This is not the place to enter into a detailed comparison of Renoir and Titian. It must be said at once that they are on different scales. Goethe once said in a similar context: “To put my young contemporaries in the sphere of drama (he was referring to Tieck and Kleist) on a par with me is as ridiculous as to put me on a par with Shakespeare.” Yet there is something in common between one, very important aspect of Titian’s almost superhuman art and the radiant, warm, caressing art of Renoir.

Claude Monet, as we know, made countless studies of one particular object, a haystack for instance, taking it in the morning, at noon, in the evening, in the moonlight, in the rain, etc. It would be a fair enough assumption to suppose that these Japanese-type exercises of Monet’s would produce a kind of scientific catalogue in colour on the subject of the famous haystack. What they in fact produced were little poems. The haystack rears up in majestic pride, is plunged in sentimental reverie, in melancholy, and so forth.

It was at this time that the Germans, in their attempts to describe the ever-increasing numbers of impressionist landscapes, began to show a special fondness for the term Stimmungslandschaft, that is, “a landscape of mood.”

But what, exactly, is “mood"?

It is that psychological music which seems to come wafting from the landscape, but which in fact the artist himself has put into it from the abundance of his own lyricism, his own experience.

Here, the landscape painter slips naturally into the role of the poet.

Renoir was a craftsman of immense power. In drawing, there were few to equal him during his lifetime. The keenness of his vision, the wealth and elegance of his portraits, the inexhaustible animation of the eyes, lips and faces in his pictures, his unfailing good taste, his lightness of touch – all these put him in the very first rank of artists of the last century. Yet it is precisely in his ability to evoke a “mood” that we feel him at his most significant, his most irresistible, his most enchanting.

The best impressionists were not, as I have said, representatives of the ruling section of the bourgeoisie. Most of them had an intense aversion for this ruling class: they hated and despised its tastes and the artists who pandered to it.

Their talent and their way of painting had been formed at a time when they lived in garrets, argued like men possessed in dirty little restaurants and cafés, dreamt and worked like the devil and sold nothing. Many died. Some were rewarded by post-humous fame. Others won through to success and fame but, in their art, remained faithful to principles they had worked out in their hungry youth.

Such a one was Renoir.

Whereas the other impressionists, particularly those who were closest to him, set almost more store in “mood” (by the “poetry” of painting) than by the actual craft, Renoir was characterised by an exceptional constancy of mood: in fact, his mood was always the same, though exceptionally rich and varied in itself. This mood was – happiness.

Once upon a time a young man, often burdened by the awkward tools of the painter’s trade, could have been seen wandering about Paris: strolling about its green and lovely suburbs, around its buildings and alongside its stretches of water, mixing with the crowd, with every conceivable type of Parisian who can be met with as you walk the streets, down to the very poorest. Reddish-haired, with big, grey-blue eyes, almost always a little hungry and, for many long years, thoroughly down-at-heel, he walked like a man who had been invited to some fantastic fair. The sun played such unexpected tricks on him that he would laugh at it, now quietly and conspiratorially, now triumphantly, out loud. The sky was hardly ever the same. Yet, when one came to think of it, it was always beautiful, and the great, eternal blessing for which there is no sufficient thanksgiving – light! – filtered through the mysterious exhalations of the air down over the earth, illumining living creatures and inanimate objects.

And here the new carnival began.

What a fair! What a market of wonders!

Renoir’s persistent, penetrating eyes would work like clever fingers to disentangle the huge, hot, blazing knots of chiaroscuro. Then, suddenly, as if turned to stone, he would stand and gape after a passing girl. Yes, yes, everything about her amazed him – the walk, the young breasts, the kindly, cat-like face. He is young, parbleu! Would it not be a delight to entice her in his unfurnished bachelor’s garret? But what he would have done first of all would have been to open the window and to sit her down beside it, and then he would have shown how the light of the great world had got into her great, bright eyes and how it had been transformed into a promise of happiness, and why a promise of happiness invested those soft, moist, crimson lips and the silvery down on her cheeks.

As he walked on he said reflectively out loud: “What festive gleams I would set dancing round your kind, kitten’s face.” As, at that very moment, he happened to catch some fat lady, a painful blow on the knee with his paint-box, it was not altogether without justification that she shouted after him: “Les Peintres sont toujours fous!” (“Painters are always balmy!”)

Nowhere did the happiness of the world strike Renoir in so pure and triumphant a form as in children. He is one of the greatest painters – or poets – of childhood.

Why yes, there is much happiness scattered about in Nature. But the unhappiness? The injustices? And what is to be done to combat all this?

But here – Renoir passes! It is no use expecting anything from him here.

No, he is not a bourgeois artist. But neither is he a revolutionary. He is a man with an appetite for happiness who found it in abundance. He is a man who painted it in abundance. He is a man who gave it to others in abundance, scattering it about in a special airy coinage which could only appear false to the most coarse of boors.

Titian, in his almost superhuman art, also reflected and created a great deal of happiness. But he can also show the truly terrible Cain murdering Abel, and portraits of men and women with predatory eyes, wise and ruthless as black panthers.

Renoir, too, was the creator of a whole world; but his world is much narrower. His women are uncommonly sweet, warm and friendly beings – but seldom, for all their enchanting freshness and irresistible appeal, do they have any pretensions to intellect. His world contains a whole collection of children; they are unforgettable and it is possible to find comfort in them in moments of sadness. His crowd is free, joyous and festive. His earth is beauty rejoicing under a smiling heaven. For that, great thanks are due to him. We should not forget how many good things fate has granted us or-at the very least – how happy we might be.

If that is what you ask of Renoir – he will give it. If you ask great craftsmanship – he will give it. If you ask the clarity of soul of an almost holy man – he will give it.

Is that not enough?