Oil on canvas: 7.9(h) x 9.8(w) in / 20(h) x 24.8(w) cm
Limoges 1841 - 1919 Cagnes
Signed lower left: Renoir
Oil on canvas: 7 7/8 x 9 3/4 in / 20 x 24.8 cm
Frame size: 12 ¾ x 14 ¾ in / 32.4 x 37.5 cm
Painted circa 1917
A gift from the artist on 26th March 1917, through the artist’s son, Jean Renoir (1894-1979), to Captain William Boissel (1869-1955) and his wife Alice, Bayonne, France; Mrs Boissel’s niece, Mrs Louis Cauvin (d.1963), née Anne-Henriette-Alice Dorsner, Bayonne; by descent to her daughter, Mrs Nelly (Nono) C Stone (née Cauvin, b.1922), Alexandria, Virginia; her husband, Mr John E Stone, Alexandria; The Estate of John E Stone; gift from the Estate in 1988 to The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia (inv. no. 88.167)
Viola Hopkins Winner, ‘Renoir’s gifts’, ARTnews, vol. 88, no.6, June-August 1989, p.25, illus. in colour
Eleanor H Gustafson, ‘Museum Accessions’, Antiques, vol. CXXXVI,no.1, July 1989, p.76, illus. in colour
‘The Modern World’ in Literature: World Masterpieces, New York 1994, p.1056, illus. in colour (used as an illustration for Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘L’intérieur de la rose’)
To be included in the Pierre-Auguste Renoir Digital Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by the Wildenstein Plattner Institute, ref. no.21.02.05/20793
Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted flowers all his career, from his days decorating porcelain for the Sèvres factory. He was especially fond of roses, with their rich colour and infinity of secret folds which reflected or buried the light. In his later years, a wealthy and famous artist, he bought an estate on the Côte d’Azur, les Collettes near Cagnes-sur-Mer. Roses rambled in the unkempt garden, glowing like jewels in the Mediterranean sun.
This painting of Roses, made circa 1917, reflects Renoir’s joy in and mastery of paint, even though by this stage he was affected by arthritis and had to work with the brushes tied to his hands. He explores the folds of the petals with speed and incisiveness, capturing the deep burgundy shadows of the larger red rose and the green depths of the yellow ones. The four blooms are grouped tightly together, floating on a thinly-brushed ground bursting with colour, expressing Renoir’s delight in the anarchic abundance of nature.
Renoir found a freedom in painting flowers that fed into his other work. As he explained to Albert André, his friend and biographer: ‘I just let my brain rest when I am painting flowers….When I am painting flowers, I establish the tones, I study the values carefully….The experience that I gain in these works, I eventually apply to my (figure) pictures’.
Roses has a remarkable history. It was given by Renoir on 26th March 1917 to family friends Captain William Boissel (1869-1955) and his wife Elise through his son Jean, the future film director. The gift is recorded in a letter from Jean to Mme Boissel which has remained with the painting, along with another letter from Jean and five from Pierre-Auguste. Jean Renoir (1894-1979) served under Boissel in the 6th Battalion of the Chasseurs during the First World War.
Brought up in a loving, bohemian household, Jean seemed an unlikely candidate for the military, but as a boy was fascinated by the drama of the army, its colourful uniforms and traditions. A keen rider, in 1913 he enlisted in a cavalry regiment, the 1st Regiment of Dragoons, before transferring to the Chasseurs Alpins, serving in the Vosges. In April 1915 he was shot in the leg by a German sniper and taken to hospital at Gérardmer, near Colmar. His mother Aline, although unwell herself, travelled to Alsace to be with him. Only her intervention prevented the surgeons from amputating the leg. The heart of the Renoir family, the ‘soul of gaiety’ according to Jean, Aline died upon her return to Les Collettes.
After a few months’ recovery, Jean enlisted in the fledgling Aéronautique Militaire, partly because it required no medical; his leg injury would trouble him to the end of his life. As an Observer taking pictures over the battle lines, he learned skills with the camera that would serve him well in his later career. France had been among the first nations to grasp the military possibilities of aeroplanes, only six years after the Wright brothers’ pioneering flight in 1903. It had 132 planes at the start of the First World War and 3,222 by the end, including fighters and bombers. The life expectancy in these machines was as brief as the moths which they resembled: around a third of airmen did not survive the war.
Despite the danger – he had narrowly escaped death when the plane in which he was travelling was attacked by a Focke – Jean hankered to be a pilot. He wrote: ‘Hitherto I had only been an observer, which I had not enjoyed at all. I was in love with machinery, and to be ferried about in the air by another man gave me the feeling of being shown a toy which I was not allowed to play with’. A lover of food and wine, brought up on his mother’s excellent Burgundian cooking, Jean initially failed his pilot test through being five kilos overweight. A crash diet ensured that he passed with flying colours, after which ‘I gorged myself with sauerkraut washed down with Alsatian wine’.
By 1917 Jean was a pilot in a reconnaissance squadron billeted in Champagne. A letter from him dated 24th March asks Capitaine Boissel to use his influence with the Commandant de l’Aéronautique to get him transferred to a fighter division: ‘Mon plus vif désir serait de ne pas terminer la campagne sans avoir abattu un boche’. A crash landing on 9th November 1917 aggravated his leg injury and he was invalided from the Air Force. Jean spent the final few months of the war in Paris, where he discovered a new passion: cinema.
Jean Renoir was mentioned in despatches as an ‘Officier extrêmement courageux et de très belle tenue au feu’. The experience of war, however, left him a profound humanitarian and a pacifist. This is the theme of many of his greatest films, including La Grande Illusion (1937), set in the First World War, where the relationships between the characters transcend their status as enemies. He wrote of his war wound: ‘a person who limps does not see life in the same way as someone who does not limp’. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, though racked with the pain of arthritis, never stopped painting. Creativity was a necessity to him and his last work, made on the penultimate day of his life, was a study of anemones. This little painting of Roses is another symbol of his determination and generosity, bound up with the spirit of his son and of the painting’s recipient, Capitaine William Boissel. It remains a testimony to three brave men.
Jean Renoir in air force uniform, with his father Pierre-Auguste Renoir, photographed by Pierre Bonnard in 1916. © Musée d’Orsay, Paris/Getty Images.
Commandant William Boissel
William Boissel was born in 1869 in Bordeaux. In 1890 he entered the military academy at Saint-Cyr. Upon graduating he was commissioned as a Sub-Lieutenant in the 49th Infantry Regiment, which was comprised mostly of Gasçon and Basque troops. Stationed in Bayonne (Baiona), Boissel began a lifelong fascination with the Pays Basque and its culture. In 1904 he married Mlle Alice Strasser in Bayonne.
Boissel was in Bordeaux at the start of the First World War in 1914. He served as a Captain in the 344th and 94th Infantry Regiments before being transferred to the 6th Battalion of the Chasseurs, where he encountered Sub-Lieutenant Jean Renoir. Boissel was mentioned in dispatches for his bravery and awarded the cross of the Légion d’Honneur in January 1916. He was promoted to Commandant (Major) a few weeks before the Armistice in 1918. Boissel’s health had suffered in the campaigns and he passed into the army reserve and returned to Bayonne.
William Boissel threw his energies into founding the Musée Basque in Bayonne, becoming its first Director in 1921. He published many articles on Basque history and encouraged his friend Philippe Veyrin to write his celebrated study Les Basques (1943). In 1937 he became an Officier of the Légion d’Honneur and died in Bayonne in 1955.
Renoir’s Roses descended to Mrs Boissel’s great-niece Nelly, who married John E Stone of Alexandria, Virginia. In 1988 the painting was given by the Estate of John E Stone to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and later deaccessioned.
Limoges 1841 - 1919 Cagnes
Pierre-August Renoir, one of the best loved of the Impressionists, always painted the beauties of nature: harmonious landscapes, flowers, fruit, children and women. He began his career at the age of thirteen as a painter on porcelain in a factory in Paris. He soon gave this up in favour of painting fans and decorating blinds, which he did until 1862, when he had saved enough money to support his ambition to study art. He enrolled in classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and in 1864 had his first painting accepted at the Paris Salon.
During this period Renoir also studied in the atelier of Charles Gleyre, where he became friends with Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and Frédéric Bazille. In 1863 Manet’s Déjeuner sur l'Herbe caused uproar at the Salon des Refusés and made a deep impression on the group of young painters. They began to go on expeditions to the Forest of Fontainebleau to paint en plein air and started to develop a palette and style of painting that formed the foundation of Impressionism. In 1869 Renoir worked alongside Claude Monet at La Grenouillière on the Seine, producing what are considered to be the first landscapes painted in the Impressionist style.
Although Renoir continued to submit his works to the Salon throughout the early 1870s, he also continued to explore his new approach to light and colour and to forge strong links with other like-minded artists such as Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley and Edgar Degas. By 1874 the group was so disaffected by the constraints placed upon them by the Salon jury that they decided to mount their own exhibition which challenged the accepted tradition of official art exhibitions. In April 1874 the group held the first of the Impressionist exhibitions.
This group of artists exhibited eight times between 1874 and 1886 and Renoir participated on four occasions. In 1878 his painting Madame Charpentier and her children (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) was accepted at the Salon. The painting was critically well received and Renoir finally began to sell his paintings; for the first time he experienced a degree of financial security. As Renoir’s popularity grew he travelled more and gradually began to adopt a different approach to his art. The Impressionists were suffering from internal disputes which led Renoir to disassociate himself from them; consequently he did not take part in the eighth and final show in 1886.
Throughout the rest of his life Renoir’s work continued to develop. He visited the South of France, Italy and North Africa, where he painted dramatic, highly-coloured landscapes. He eventually married his companion Aline Charigot and as his family grew he experienced a new contentment. In 1907, suffering from ill health, he purchased a property in Cagnes-sur-Mer near Nice on the Côte d’Azur where he settled with his family and painted until his death in 1919.
 See Ronald Bergan, Jean Renoir Projections of Paradise: a Biography, London 1992, pp.41-49.
 Quoted in Bergan, op. cit., p.49.
 Jean Renoir, Renoir, My Father, 1958: English edn. trans. Randolph and Dorothy Weaver, New York Review Books, New York, 2001, p.425.
 The letter forms part of a group of letters by Jean Renoir and his father kept with the painting of Roses in the Boissel family.
 Citation when he was serving as a Sub-Lieutenant in the 6th Battalion of the Chasseurs à Pied (light infantry).
 Quoted in Bergan, ibid., p.46.
 See AL, ‘Le Commandant Boissel’, Revue Pyrénées, no.24, pp.252-253. I am grateful to Mme Ghislaine Maurice-de Blay, Secrétaire des Amis du Musée Basque, for information on Commandant Boissel.