Renoir Museum & Les Collettes
Visiting Renoir’s studio was an extraordinary, quite evocative moment and similar to how I felt when visiting Matisse’s studio in Villa Le Rêve in Vence.
Located on the first floor there is a stone fireplace and chimney that dominates one wall; in the middle of the room stands his large easel with his wicker wheelchair in front of it and painting materials to either side. His smaller studio has views over the bay, the gardens and the mountains in the background and is furnished with a smaller wooden wheelchair.
I am in awe of Renoir with his indomitable character and passion for painting. Overcoming pain with hands that had become progressively deformed by rheumatoid arthritis and fingers permanently curled he still found an inner strength to paint – with paintbrushes slipped into his hands by an assistant (and not strapped to his fingers as most people believe).
On the day I visited with friends, the house was busy with visitors. A small wooden staircase leads you down into his studio but everyone kindly gives way, whispering about what they saw or where to go next. I felt honoured to bear witness to Renoir’s life and I was not alone in having a few emotional tears bubbling up.
It helped to go outside and walk among the olive and citrus groves so beautifully maintained. The light outside was intense and in fact, I came across a few people who had set up their own easel to paint and I thought how very special that must be for them. (Byline: did you know there is a Renoir grant established in 1986 by Claude and Evangelina Renoir the goal of which is to encourage young professional artists (under 40) in their work?)
In 1900, and with his rheumatoid arthritis becoming ever more painful, his doctor advises him to try a change of climate. Having seen and felt the benefits that being in the south did to his ailing body on previous short visits, he decides to spend some time near Grasse with Aline his wife and younger son Jean. From there it would have been relatively easy for Renoir to explore Menton, Le Cannet and Cagnes-sur-Mer.
The story of Les Collettes
Renoir became captivated by the light and landscapes of the South of France in the 1880s when he travelled there with Claude Monet. From 1900 Renoir and his wife, Aline, became regular winter visitors to the Côte d’Azur, renting the “maison de la Poste” (now the mairie) in 1903 for four years. lured by the mild climate that eased the artist’s rheumatoid arthritis. He had not intended to buy any property but when he heard about a farm called Les Collettes with its ancient olive grove on the hills behind Cagnes was to be sold off and the trees, some believed to be between 500 and 1,000 years old, felled to make way for intensive production carnations – he felt driven to act.
It is said that upon visiting Cagnes-sur-Mer Renoir exclaimed:
Il y a là, la plus belle lumière du monde!
(There exists there the most beautiful light in the world)
But Madame Renoir had other ideas and, after Renoir bought the 11 hectare estate in 1907, she insisted on having a very large villa built (to accommodate family, friends and staff) thereby snuffing any thoughts Renoir had of being in the old farmhouse. He turns to the architect Jules Febvre to design and oversee the villa’s building which is finished by the autumn of 1908. Aline is delighted and one hopes Renoir is too, and they move into their new home with their three sons, Pierre, Jean (future film maker) and Claude. It is a convivial place and visited by many of Renoir’s artistic friends – a young Henri Matisse was a frequent visitor.
In 1912, four years after having settled in Les Collettes, Renoir suffered a stroke which left him bound to a wheelchair. Yet despite this setback he continued to work every day, spending winter at Les Collettes and summer returning to Essoyes, Aline’s home town – a quiet Champagne village in the Aube department – where he spent his days painting in the studio he had built for him at the bottom of the family’s garden.
With hands so crippled by rheumatism that it caused his thumbs to turn inward towards the palms, and his fingers to bend towards the wrists it remains a testament to Renoir’s great courage that he even contemplated the art of sculpting – yet in 1913 he does just that and more.
At the suggestion of his friend Vollard, he takes up sculpture with a pupil of Maillol called Richard Guino and has a studio built in the garden of Les Collettes where they both work. Under Renoir’s direction, Guino works the clay for him and creates the little Venus and then the famous Venus Victrix, which is still on display in the garden. In fact Renoir went on to create an ensemble of pieces considered at the zenith of modern sculpture.
Along with Guino, Renoir had other assistants as well as his youngest son Claude, to assist him, arrange his palette and place the brush in his permanently clenched hand. He depended much on others to move him around in his wheelchair. His assistants would scroll large canvasses across a custom-made easel, so that the seated painter could reach different areas with his limited arm movements.
When the young Henri Matisse asked the suffering old man why he kept painting, Renoir is said to have replied, “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”
Renoir’s last few years were saddened by the death of Aline in June 1915, his sons being wounded in the First World War and the inexorable progress of his illness and its constant pain. But he remained busy for when he was not painting in his main studio he was with Guino and producing sculptures. Their collaboration lasted until 1918.
One would like to think that Renoir’s last year was a little happier and that perhaps he even experienced a sense of triumph. The state had purchased his portrait Madame Georges Charpentier (1877), and he travelled to Paris in August 1919 to see it hanging in the Louvre.
Renoir returned to Les Collettes and continued painting throughout September until the end of November when he started to feel unwell. Having just finished painting a bouquet of anemones he now began a small still life – two apples – but was unable to finish it. I am presuming it was Claude who called out Renoir’s two physicians who arrived from Nice and remained by his bedside until he died, a little after two o’clock in the morning of Wednesday, 3rd December, 1919. He was 78 years old.
He is buried next to his beloved Aline in Essoyes.
After his death Les Collettes passed to his youngest son, Claude, who continued to live there until 1960 when he sold the house and the remaining estate, now only 2½ hectares, to the town of Cagnes-sur-Mer and the general council of the Alpes-Maritimes. They turned into a municipal museum featuring the family’s furniture, fourteen original paintings and thirty sculptures by the master, including a version of Les Grandes Baigneuses.
In July 2013, after 18 months of extensive renovation work, the Renoir Museum and the Collettes estate reopened their doors. For the first time the museum also gave public access to the kitchen and hallway overlooking the gardens, added a set of 17 plaster sculptures donated by Renoir and Guion families, as well as 2 additional original canvasses. The museum is now also accessible to persons with reduced mobility.
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Renoir Museum, 19 chemin des Collettes, 06800 Cagnes-sur-Mer. Tel: 04 93 20 61 07
Closed Every Tuesday
June to September: 10am – 1pm & 2pm – 6pm
(gardens open 10am – 6pm)
October to March: 10am – 12am & 2pm – 5pm
April and May: 10am – 12am & 2pm – 6pm
Also Closed: 25 Dec, 1 Jan and 1 May
By car: motorway A8, exit #47/48 direction Cagnes-sur-Mer, heading towards ‘Centre Ville’.
By Bus from Nice: take the bus #200, #217 or #500 for 1.50€ which will take 30 minutes, and get off in Cagnes-sur-mer centre/Gare Routiere (bus station). From here you can walk it (up hill) in 5 minutes, or take the local bus #49 and get off at the Musée Renoir stop.
Train: Cagnes-sur-Mer stop then either walking up or taking the #49 bus.
Good to Know
There is limited parking spaces at the Museum itself so the best place to park is the parking La Villette and then make the short walk along chemin des Collettes. Guided tours are given in July & August from Wednesday to Sunday between 2pm and 6pm. In September they are on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday between 2pm and 5pm (6pm in April, May, June & September). The tours last 1 hour and given in French or English depending upon demand.