A Day with Renoir

Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, Renoir (1876), Musee D'Orsay

No matter how many times I go to the D’Orsay, this painting makes me stop and gawk. I just saw it again recently with my husband in tow. He encourages my painting and puts up with my “I-wish-I-could-do-that” kind of commentary. Standing in front of Dance at le Moulin de la Galette, I was awash in admiration: “look at the pink dapples of light on her dress!”

I forget, until I see the real thing and get to admire the brush strokes up close, how many colors Renoir uses for sunlight, and how effortless he makes it look. Was the light really reflecting pink that day, or was he just playing with his palette? My own art teachers are always urging me to see the light as it truly is, and not what my brain thinks it is. There is color all around us and we don’t even know it. There is purple in a tree trunk, pink in a skirt, blue under a chin. And Renoir seems to know this best of all.

So I’ve been thinking of Renoir lately, with spring in all of its soft pastel colors breaking out in Paris. I decided to go visit the very place where Renoir painted this scene back in 1876, at the Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre. The windmill was relocated from the original site further up the hill where the real dance hall was located. The Moulin de la Galette is now a restaurant at 83 rue Lepic, with a lovely quiet outdoor terrace and an English menu board.

Renoir painted en plein air at the Moulin de la Galette on Sundays, when he had a little help from his his friends. Because it would be impossible to capture real people who were so busy moving and dancing, he asked his friends pose for him in small groups. Renoir had to drag the extra large canvas back and forth to his studio, which was located up the hill and a couple of blocks away from Moulin de la Galette. He had to grapple with the wet canvas – a future masterpiece – in the heavy winds on the butte.

Renoir’s former studio is now Musee de Montmartre, 12-14 rue Cortot in Montmartre. The museum has a beautiful outdoor garden and courtyard, which happened to be in the earliest spring bloom when I was there. From the gardens, you can look up the hill toward Sacre Coeur, or downhill toward the Montmartre cemetery, the vineyards and Au Lapin Agile. The perfect place for an artist to live and create.

The view of the vineyards of Montmartre and Au Lapin Agile out the back window of Renoir's home

Pardon the bird poop, but this sign explains that The Swing was painted in this garden, where a replica of the swing still hangs from a tree.

I don't care if it's not the same swing from 135 years ago. I sat on it and still got goose bumps.

For more about Renoir, I recommend the book Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland, which tells the story behind another one of my favorite Renoir paintings. Maybe later this spring I will plan a day trip out to La Maison Fournaise in Chatou on the Seine, where Luncheon of the Boating Party was painted. Care to join me?

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