This work will be included in the forthcoming Pierre-Auguste Renoir Digital Catalogue Raisonné, currently being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Plattner Institute, Inc.
‘To seek the charming aspects of nature, the aspects that make us love it, that is Renoir’s aim; his whole oeuvre has this as its goal!’
(G. Rivière, quoted in C. Bailey & C. Riopelle et. al., exh. cat., Renoir Landscapes 1865-1883, London, 2007, p. 13)
‘In the open air, one feels encouraged to put on the canvas tones that one couldn’t imagine in the subdued light of the studio’
(Renoir, quoted in M. Lucy & J. House, Renoir in the Barnes Foundation, New Haven & London, 2012, p. 217).
Following his trip to Italy in 1881, Renoir became increasingly preoccupied with the classical traditions of the paysage composé. He and his colleagues had come to question the spontaneity and informality of Impressionist plein-air techniques, and they began to consider and experiment with alternative, more systematic approaches. John House has noted that, ‘Renoir was deliberately moving away from any suggestion of the fleeting or the contingent, away from the Impressionist preoccupation with the captured instant’ (J. House, Renoir, exh. cat., London, 1985, p. 242). During the summer of 1885, Renoir holidayed with his companion Aline Charigot and their newborn son Pierre at La Roche-Guyon, a village on the Seine between Paris and Rouen. Renoir invited Paul Cézanne, his wife and son to join them, and the two families spent four weeks together there from 15 June to 11 July. This invitation was in part an expression of Renoir's gratitude for the care that Cézanne and his mother had extended to him when he fell ill with pneumonia while visiting them in L'Estaque in late January 1882 on his return from Italy, as well as Cézanne's hospitality the following year when Renoir visited him following a painting trip to the Riviera with Monet. Renoir and Cézanne welcomed this opportunity in La Roche-Guyon to work side-by-side again, and to discuss the issues of technique that had been on their minds.
‘Though painting directly from nature, like the Impressionists,’ as Meyer Schapiro has pointed out, ‘Cézanne thought often of the more formal art he admired in the Louvre. He wished to create works of a noble harmony like those of the old masters... [with] completeness and order...that is, to find the forms of the painting in the landscape before him and to render the whole in a more natural colouring based on direct perception of tones and light’ (M. Schapiro, Cézanne, New York, 1952, p. 12). Having absorbed and expanded on the lessons he had drawn from working with Pissarro for more than a decade, Cézanne had by the mid-1880s arrived at a controlled, constructivist brushstroke in his landscape painting, a disciplined method that was as controversial as it was intriguing to his fellow painters. Renoir was interested in Cézanne's structured method, and began to adapt elements of it to his own painting –the results are visible in various canvases that Renoir painted that summer and autumn. Later on in this summer of 1885, Renoir visited his patron, the diplomat and banker, Paul Bérard and his family at their home, the opulent château de Wargemont, situated to the north of Dieppe. During this stay, he painted at various sites along the Normandy coast; it was possibly during this time that he made the present view of Trouville from the heights above this popular resort town. The steeple at the lower right is well-known from Monet's early views of the promenade, and to the left appear the various multistorey hotels that catered to vacationing Parisians who flocked to this fashionable summer destination.
By the time that he painted the present work, Renoir had come to love this corner of northern France. He had first met Bérard in the spring of 1879 at the salon of Renoir’s other major patrons, Marguerite Charpentier and her husband Georges. Shortly after this, Bérard commissioned the artist to paint a portrait of his eldest daughter. Pleased with the outcome, Bérard invited Renoir to his country home, a visit that he would repeat over the years to come, painting over the course of his stays there a variety of portraits of the Bérard family, as well as a number of landscapes, still-lifes, and paintings in the Château itself. ‘I was often present when Renoir painted in Normandy in the region around Pourville, Berneval and the château de Wargemont, where he was Paul Bérard’s guest’, Jacques-Emile Blanche, a neighbour of Bérard in Normandy, recalled. ‘Portraits, seascapes, geraniums, fruits, summer landscapes: I frequently observed him at work, “knitting” them with his sable brushes and plaster-white canvases’ (J-E. Blanche, quoted in C. Bailey et al., Renoir Landscapes, 1865-1883, exh. cat., London, Ottawa & Philadelphia, 2007-2008, p. 199).
Renoir's technique in Les hauteurs de Trouville is a synthesis of Cézanne's ideas and his own more casual and painterly approach to outdoor painting. He painted the windswept brush and trees with short, staccato marks, while rendering the hazy atmosphere of the sea, the distant bluffs and sky in more blended strokes. Discussing another painting of this period, House has noted that, ‘The strokes themselves... are quite unlike Cézanne's – less crisp, and tending to blend together. In Cézanne's paintings such strokes belong to the picture's two-dimensional fabric; their effect is flat, too, in parts of Renoir's picture... but elsewhere they act more illusionistically, suggesting the appearance of forms in space... Renoir was reluctant to subordinate the natural elements in a scene to an overriding surface pattern’ (J. House, op. cit., p. 247).
In addition to Cézanne, the presence of Monet is at once evident in the present work. Indeed, the pair had been working together in the south of France in the autumn of 1883, still remaining close despite the years that had passed since they had embarked upon their Impressionist endeavours together in the late 1860s and early 70s. At this time in the early 1880s, Monet had largely devoted himself to the depiction of the north coast of France, returning on numerous painting campaigns to Fécamp, Pourville, Étretat and Dieppe as he sought to capture the dramatic land formations and stark beauty of Normandy.
In 1882, Monet had adopted a similar compositional device as in the present work (see Wildenstein, nos. 760-763), depicting a coastal path winding through two steep land banks that leads down to the sea beyond. In adopting a similarly audacious composition, Renoir plays with fields of depth, contrasting the intimate detail of the foreground, which places the viewer at the same spot that Renoir likely painted this scene, with the panoramic vision of the background. The narrow, sun-dappled pathway framed by verdant foliage makes the expansive view of the Channel and the town of Trouville all the more impressive. Using long, streaks of white paint in the sky and on the sea, Renoir has conveyed a bright, windswept day, such as is characteristic of this stretch of northern France. With his distinctive Impressionist handling, Renoir has captured all the freshness and immediacy of the scene, yet, in structuring this view of Trouville with a form of repoussoir, the artist has combined the central tenets of plein-air painting with a more classical approach to the portrayal of the landscape, a feature that would come to define his works of the rest of the decade.