I hoped to rescue a beautiful impressionist print by Auguste Renoir the other day, but the yard sale guy had laid it on the dewy early summer morning grass and the backing paper was in danger of getting wet. I told him about it and he saw no problem, so I didn’t save it right then because he was an ass.
The yardsale was on the main street of a small city, very present visually to the drivers trying to go by without stopping. All manner of stuff: old furniture, architectural pieces from demolished houses, all strewn about the lawn by the ass. He was a rough man yet he was aware of the prices of things, but not their beauty. He said to me, bearded and lord of his junkyard domain, pointing down at the art prints: “These are nice pictures, better take a good look.”
Were Renoir to stop by this street junk sale, he would set up his easel and paint a picture all light and pleasant. (Impressionists painted the emotive impact of a scene, not what the scene “looked like.”) And yes, he would be right in a way: if not for the ass, this could feel like a picker’s eden with a galore of things calling out to be rescued.
The impressionists broke with the tradition of depicting scenes of classical history, painted in a studio from memory and history books. They moved outside, en plein air, out into the everyday world of real people. Renoir said: “I like paintings that make me want to walk into them as if a landscape, to caress them . . . .” He loved what he saw; he would have taken this rough yardsale guy and transformed the scene into one of light and beauty.
I went back to look again at “Girl with a Watering Can”. Staying with it for a while, the looking transformed my negative reaction to the ass into an aesthetic mood of appreciation and joy. And the backing paper was not wet at all from the dew. The sun had begun to warm away the dew by that time anyway.
Renoir painted many pictures of young girls, at the piano, lounging about, and especially in summer gardens, surrounded and undifferentiated from the flowers about them. He had an innocent appreciation for their youth. The girl with the watering can seemed as innocent to me as the daisies in her hand.
Near the end of his life, Renoir had debilitating rheumatism in his hands. Yet he still loved what he saw, so he strapped brushes to his wrists and continued to paint. On his deathbed, he said innocently about his art: “I think I am beginning to understand something about it.”