Renoir and the Olive Trees of Les Collettes

100 years after Renoir moved to Les Collettes, I visit the home in which Renoir spent the last eleven years of his life, comforted by the climate of the Côte D’Azur and surrounded by his beloved olive trees.

Stretching from Théoule-sur-Mer in the west to Menton on France’s border with Italy, the Côte D’ Azur takes in Antibes, Cannes, Nice, and the principality of Monaco. Such names evoke the atmosphere of an easy going lifestyle in a warm climate with that most perfect of Mediterranean light, on what has become known as the ‘azure coast’.

From around the end of the 19th Century many artists became fascinated by the lifestyle and luminosity of this region. They became obsessed with the exuberant nature of the area, the inspirational scenes and the magical light and colour. To one artist in particular the region’s apparent gift of healing and the temperate climate was of equal importance.

Pierre Auguste Renoir was born on 25th February 1841 in Limoges, the son of a tailor. Spending most of his childhood in Paris he became interested in painting when working as a porcelain painter. By the age of twenty he began attending the studio of Charles Gleyre the Swiss art teacher who taught other members of the impressionist movement and where Renoir met his other compatriots, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and Jean-Frédéric-Bazille. He later enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and so began his lifelong relationship with art and his impressionist friends.

Throughout Renoir’s life as an artist his relationship with the impressionists, the salons, dealers and his changing view of art and impressionism, he became rather distant. He frequently travelled, studying museums and the history of art and this led to him establishing his own style, particularly that of portraiture.

Just occasionally he would be accompanied by Aline Carigot, whom he met in Paris when in his late thirties. Aline had arrived in Paris from the village of Essoyes in Burgundy. She frequently modelled for Renoir and appears in one of his most famous works, Luncheon of the Boating Party painted around 1880. In 1890 the couple married when their eldest son Pierre was five years old and some ten years after their first meeting.

Domestic life ensued and in 1894 their second son Jean was born followed by Claude, known as Coco in 1901 by which time Renoir was 60 and Aline more than 40. They were joined by Gabrielle Renard, a distant cousin from Essoyes who joined the family to help with the children.

Renoir’s maturity however was marred by ill health. During the summer of 1897 he had fallen from his bicycle and broken his right arm for the second time. This incident exacerbated the arthritis from which he was already suffering and by1902 the condition had worsened and forced him to consider spending winters in the milder climate of the south of France.

It was on one of his trips to the south that he came across the village of Cagnes nestling under the heights of the old medieval town and the Grimaldi castle. He fell in love with Cagnes and in 1903 eventually acquired a small apartment which was part of the village post office. Here, the new surroundings just west of Nice and near the river Var provided new painting opportunities for him, which considerably helped bear the pain of his suffering.

Feeling at home in Cagnes, the artist would stroll around the area admiring the flowers, oranges and lemons, taking in the clear sea air and watching the fisherman bring home their catch of sardines at nearby Cros-de-Cagnes. He always proclaimed these sardines to be “the best in the world”.

The olive groves tiered above the village stretching out towards the old medieval town. Renoir would often sit in the shade of these ancient trees taking in the view, watching the peasants go about their tasks and painting the scene before him. Little did he realise that one day he would become the owner of these fine olive groves.

Renoir had already been warned by a local farmer that developers were planning to fell his favourite olive grove to make way for further development. This news stirred his emotions and all he could think of was buying the land complete with the old farmhouse. This area of land, known as Les Collettes (meaning small hills) was built on a slope with views out to sea as far as Antibes.

On 28th June 1907 Renoir became the owner of Les Collettes and by the autumn of 1908 everything had been made sufficiently habitable for the Renoir family to move in. The olive trees had been saved and Renoir now had a home amidst their dappled light, together with views that fired his imagination. Aline was also happy, as this meant the family were no longer having to move between their homes in order to alleviate Renoir of his worsening condition.

It was not long before Aline realised the small farmhouse was not a practical solution. There were always visitors, family and friends staying in the Renoir household and they needed more space. So a new house was designed and built just a short way from the original farmhouse which was retained in its olive grove setting.

Aline was a very capable homemaker and also started planning the garden to accompany the new house. The olive trees were tended, vines planted along with more citrus trees. It was not long before the family were able to entertain in their new home and although Renoir at first thought the house a little large, he soon became settled and enjoyed the sociability it offered.

The olive trees at Les Collettes were simply beautiful, their gnarled trunks, twisted forms and colours were a constant attraction for the painter who said he often struggled to capture their tonality. They were certainly old and said to have been planted by the soldiers of Francois 1st as a task to keep them occupied when they passed through the region in 1538.

Although nurtured by the warmer climate, Renoir’s health deteriorated over the years but defiantly he continued painting almost everyday of his life. Even when confined to bed he would still continue with his painting. He revelled in the light of the area, the flowers and fruits were his still life subjects and the views around Cagnes and Les Collettes were his landscapes.

Portraits were his love and it was Gabrielle Renard, Aline’s cousin, who not only became Renoir’s favourite model but his secretary and assistant. Preparing and cleaning his palette when it became too difficult for his hands to master was just one of her tasks. It was her rosy cheeks and Burgundian features which so much inspired Renoir to paint her more than eight hundred times. It also seemed that even the models from the south of France who posed for the master, always appeared to have the same rosy cheeks and Burgundian features.

Until 1910 Renoir was able to move around with the aid of walking sticks but his condition soon became so severe that a wheelchair became necessary. Today his wheelchair takes centre stage in his studio at the museum. He once told his doctor that walking required so much willpower that he had none left to paint and that he had given up walking because he preferred painting!

Eventually his hands became so twisted and contorted that it became difficult for him to hold a brush and he had them strapped to his hands. Painting it seemed was his reason for living and no amount of pain or discomfort would stop this daily activity. With his family around him they were able to support and care for the frail but determined Renoir.

During the early years of the First World War, sons Pierre and Jean were both injured. Aline spent much time visiting them in hospitals in Carcassonne and Geradmer. Returning to Cagnes one day completely exhausted, she suffered a heart attack and later died in a Nice clinic on 27th June 1915.

After the death of Aline, Renoir was surrounded by his friends, sons and grandchildren. Aline had possessed great vision in designing such a large house which meant Renoir was never alone and was able to continue his painting and enjoy the surroundings.

The more Renoir suffered, the more he painted and in 1915 pursued further his creative genius in sculpture. Having previously established a working relationship on other projects with a young Spaniard Richard Guino, they both worked on creating a piece for the garden at Les Collettes. Renoir had always visualised marble or bronze Greek goddesses contrasting with the olive trees and sun dappled foliage, and this was the opportunity he had been waiting for. Together they worked on the piece and at times under the olive trees. Incredibly, Renoir managed to work with the aid of a sculpting tool and in fact produced a significant amount of the moulding himself. The Venus Victrix was later cast in bronze and today stands amid the lemon and orange trees in front of the house, readily admired by visitors just as Renoir would have wished.

Towards the end of his life his skin became so sensitive that even bed linen had to be cradled over him and he had to be carried everywhere, often into the garden to view the olive trees and always to paint.

In November 1919 Renoir started his last major painting, The Bathers. This was a large canvas for which he had an adjustable easel made in order that the canvas, mounted on cylinders, could be manoeuvred as he painted. He regarded this as the culmination of his art, combining the female nude and the landscape in the colours of the Mediterranean light.

In the early morning of the 3rd December 1919 Renoir quietly passed away at the age of 78. He had made his last view of the Mediterranean through the silvery leaves of his olive trees.

Today, thanks to the artist these trees still remain in the grounds of Les Collettes together with the views which he so admired. His studio in the main house has been left much as he used it and the whole atmosphere at Les Collettes, now the Renoir Museum, continues the theme of a family home with many visitors, all admiring the views, the olive groves and the life of Renoir.

The Renoir Museum
Chemin des Collettes
F-06600 Cagnes-sur-Mer
Tel 0033 04 93 20 61 07

Les Collettes was purchased by the town of Cagnes in 1960 which has since devoted itself to preserving the rustic and natural character of the garden and the ancient olive grove. The house contains 11 original oil paintings, sculptures and furniture with many
photographs and mementoes of Renoir’s life.

The author wishes to express his thanks to Mr Roland Constant, Adjoint au Maire Délégué à la Culture et aux Musées and Musée Renoir Curator, Virginie Journiac.