I remember the first time I ssaw Renoir’s painting, “Girls at the Piano,” hung on a restaurant wall when I was a first-grader in elementary school. I loved the vibrant warmth of the colors and the softness of the girls’ expressions. Since then, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) has become one of my favorite painters. Given that preference, my reading of this book about the master was long overdue. Still, I am pleased to learn that Renoir was what I had imagined him to be – a creator of art whose eyes are set on the stars and foot grounded on earth.
Renoir was a master of the French Impressionism troika led by Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, pioneering a new painting style as the epoch needed a new cultural ethos for the upcoming new century. Although the masters of French Impressionism were on the same musical note, their timbres were various. While Monet and Pissarro were idiosyncratic and liberal in techniques and subject figures of their artistic creations, Renoir was a conservative in keeping a tradition of Paul Rubens in his celebration of feminine beauty surrounded by the realism of nature and life.
A pursuer of the beauty that was both real and ideal existing in the physical world, not the spheres of the heavens, Renoir used the ideal to perfect the real, adapting traditional techniques to his visions of the worlds conjured in his mind’s eye. Renoir’s fascination with sensuous beauty in the expression of vivid but soft hues of vibrant colors and rounded, smooth figures of models in his paintings show his unintentional application of Aristotelian aesthetic theory: beauty inherent in itself and beauty by its use. Renoir’s paintings are replete with the beautiful colors, the warmth of the ambiance, pleasantness of the moment, and equilibrium of the backgrounds, all the mastery of using the ordinary with a profound sense to elevate it to art, giving art its true meaning. That might be a reason why German composer Richard Wagner, the creator of “Nibelungen’s Ring,” chose Renoir among other famous painters of the time to produce his portraiture. Or perhaps it was why Americans first found Renoir’s paintings so appealing that the goring sales in America brought Renoir fame and wealth.
After reading this elegant biography of Renoir, I liked him even more because he was an artist who had an artistic vein of genius and a practical sense of responsibility. He was a devoted father who even took care of his illegitimate daughter from his first girlfriend before marrying his model wife Aline Chariot, from whom he kept it a secret for life. Renoir might have had preconceptions about specific beliefs and people, but who would not have them secretly hidden in their mind’s closet? I believe that art serves its purpose when it gives the beholder a delightful sensation, not a dangerous illusion of distorted reality drawn from an artist’s disillusioned mind. Now I have a replica of Renoir’s “Two Girls at the Piano” from Amazon posted on my bedroom wall. It still has the first impression of the painting that has stayed in my heart with delightful nostalgia, enveloping me in the longing for the bidding the time’s return, which only Renoir could do the magic.
I still remember an excellent replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in a tapestry form decorated on the wall of our family living room when I was in elementary school. It was vast and expansive, nonetheless magnificent with the profoundness of the scene and the expressions on the faces in it – all wondrous and curious. Now a stream of time has flown, but the first impression of the art still has become one of the stars in my heart’s constellation. “Leonardo and the Last Supper” by Ross King has added to the star the brilliance with telling stories resurrecting the atmosphere of the time and vividness of the people surrounding the creation and the creator of the art.
The book is an alluring admixture of the biography of Leonardo da Vinci and the history of religion, politics, society, and culture; all skillfully swirled in Ross’s skillful narrative account of the person of da Vinci and his work of the Last Supper. The narrative becomes more intriguing as the chapters replete with entertainingly informative tidbits about personal accounts of people related to da Vinci and involved in creating the Last Supper are ascending. The story’s construction follows how Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century English essayist and cultural critic, narrated the lives of poets in The Lives of the Poets, composed of a brief biography of a poet, personal accounts of the poet, and professional criticism of the works. The reader will first be acquainted with da Vinci’s biographic backgrounds: parents, a well-to-do lawyer father, and a middle eastern slave mother owned by his father’s household. Da Vinci’s struggle with spelling and even harder Latin education, his fabrication of engineering work experience in his curriculum vitae to obtain a military commissioned engineer post when coming to Milan from Tuscany, and so forth. All the information is a telltale factor contributing to da Vinci’s rise to celebrity in his and our times, which is refreshingly informative to learn that the perennial polymath also had feet of clay with colors of contrast.
Ross is a scholar with a novelist’s magic wand to wield his writing power, casting a spell on facts and knowledge with the beauty of language and ease of words, captivating readers of all life paths with gripping narrative skills. Another book of his “Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling,” which I enjoyed with great pleasure, is a helpful companion to this book because both Michelangelo and da Vinci were contemporaries, working under their aristocratic patronage the recalcitrant spirits of creative souls in reins of livelihood. It would also be an excellent reference to the social statuses of artists at that time. Contrary to our images of free-spirited artists, artists worked for their royal, ecclesiastical, and wealthy employers. Therefore, they were not free to choose subject matters for their works because their bosses wanted their power and fame to become works of art, as it were.
Upon closing the last page of Leonardo and the Last Supper, I reminded myself of Plato’s aesthetic definition. Art is a copy of Form, the perfect, pristine Beauty. It exists only in Idea because da Vinci was also a scientist and an engineer who found perfect beauty in perfect numerical and astronomical elements of nature. However, da Vinci’s Last Supper is filled with pathos, contrasts of human emotions, paradoxes of light and dark, good and evil, constantly changing, never-ending. Da Vinci was a humanist, finding beauty in nature as it is, regardless of perfect Form, the unattainable ideal that is out of touch. One thing right about Plato’s Aesthetics is that art is at best entertainment and at worst a dangerous illusion. That says it. Leonardo’s Last Supper is a soul’s entertainment, and so is Ross’s “Leonardo and the Last Supper.”