12 February 2012


Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1895

In her poem ‘On the Terrace’,* Anne Michaels speaks in the voice of the Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. His name isn’t mentioned, but the narrator is a painter, getting on in years, and his hands are bound in ‘powdered gauze’, to ‘stop the chafing’ of his folded-in palms (p 103). His brush ‘fits nicely in that crevice’ (p 103). So right from the start we can recognise who it is. The first verse ends skilfully with the evocative image of Renoir’s ‘twisted joints’ like ‘vines’ around the straight ‘trunk’ of the ‘brush’ (p 103).

Mentioned only twice, but significant in the poem and in Renoir’s life, is Gabrielle Renard. Gabrielle was the cousin of Renoir’s wife, and nurse to the Renoir children. It is she who wraps the painter’s hands in the gauze, and evidently she’s also one of his models – gaining ‘twenty pounds under [his] brush’ (p 103).

Renoir’s children don’t come into the poem – he’s thinking of other things. But he had three sons, the second of whom, Jean, became an acclaimed filmmaker, hailed by Orson Welles as the greatest of all directors. In his memoir, My Life and My Films, Jean Renoir apparently makes known the great influence Gabrielle had on his life, as his nurse and then as his mentor. It seems she taught him to value originality and to distinguish between reality and appearance.

This stood Jean Renoir in good stead when he worked with Rumer Godden in America and India, making a film of her novel The River.** Early in the Second World War, he and his wife fled from France to America, via Morocco. Setting up in Beverley Hills and taking American citizenship, Jean Renoir made one successful film before falling out with the big studio, RKO, in mid-production of another. He didn’t mind that it cost him his reputation with the ‘film moguls’ – instead, he was ‘anxious to express sincerely in [his] work what [he] is …’; in reading The River he realised he had discovered the ‘new style’ that would ‘fit with the new person [he] had become and the new life [he] had found’ (p 86). As Rumer Godden puts it:

Renoir believed passionately, as I do, that in cinema the only authenticity is truth so that he would not have a Bengali peasant, field worker or boatman singing or talking in English … Nowhere in the film of The River is there anything artificial that should be real, nowhere does anyone speak words they could not in real life have said, and with this reality I believe we achieved the quality we wanted, the timelessness of a spell that held the most discerning of the critics … (p 86)

At the Renoir house in Los Angeles where Godden wrote the screenplay, prior to the filming in Calcutta, there was also Gabrielle, Godden notes, the ‘dark girl of so many of Auguste Renoir’s paintings’ (p 106). Godden sees her as having been father Renoir’s ‘favourite model’, as son Renoir told the writer: ‘She would be starting the cooking of lunch … when there would be a bellow from my father, “Gabrielle, Gabrielle.” He had thrown out his model and Gabrielle had to leave her omelette or whatever she was cooking and take off her clothes’ (pp 106–7).

Michaels mentions this too. In her poem, Renoir compares the past and the present: ‘Those days’, when Renoir was young and experiencing a loneliness of the Impressionist process – that is, of ‘letting the world wash over you’ – ‘those days, everyone looked away’ (p 103). By contrast, ‘now’, when Renoir is much older, damaged by arthritis, ‘women look [him] in the eye when [he] takes their clothes off’ – ‘a fine son of a tailor,’ he admits wryly, ‘painting nudes!’ (p 103).

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1910

Like the younger Renoir, Gabrielle had also moved to California. And, Godden believed, Gabrielle ‘detested’ her (p 107). She called Godden ‘La Dame’. ‘Où est la dame?’ she would ask, arriving for her daily visit, hardly ‘setting foot inside unless [Godden] was in her room’ (p 107). It seems Gabrielle was against the many hours that Godden ‘spent alone’ with Jean Renoir ‘in the studio’, ‘suspecting’ her of ‘stealing him’ from his wife, whom Gabrielle ‘adored’ (p 107).

So Gabrielle is a litoverlap. And another interesting thing for me is how her life dovetails two eras – that of father Renoir’s 19th century and son Renoir’s 20th, and two artistic endeavours – that of father Renoir’s painting and son Renoir’s filmmaking. Renoir lived mainly in the later 1800s; he died just after the First World War. He was 53 when Jean came along. Born towards the end of the 1800s and living for eight decades, Gabrielle saw both world wars and huge technological development. She was 16 when Jean was born, and she was in her early 70s in 1949, when Jean and Rumer were making the film. At the time, Jean was 55, Rumer 42. Jean Renoir’s work also saw great change: He was one of the filmmakers who progressed from silent, monochrome movies through to sound and colour – The River was his first colour film.

Gabrielle indirectly affected Godden, too. Jean Renoir was so taken with Godden’s novel because it constituted for him ‘an act of love toward childhood … and toward India’: His fairly new American persona felt that there was ‘no more time for sarcasm’ – the only thing that he could bring ‘to this illogical, irresponsible, cruel world’ was, similarly, his ‘love’ (p 86). At the least, he seemed to have found in Godden a kindred spirit. His respect for her was ‘almost reverence’, as perceived by Godden, and she was deeply touched and changed by it: ‘That a sophisticated world renowned genius of a Frenchman should rate [her] so highly gave [her] a new confidence and broke for good the shell [the] Goddens [she had three sisters] so easily retreat into’ (p 105).

Gabrielle may have hated Godden as a woman, but the nurse and mentor’s influence stretched far enough to benefit the latter both as a writer and as a person of such ‘reserve’ that she appeared ‘arrogant and unapproachable’, a (mis)perception with which Godden had struggled all her life (p 105).

Somewhat in the background in Michaels’s poem and in Godden’s memoir, Gabrielle is nevertheless the living link between Renoir the artist, who in my mind was so ‘distant’ as seeming almost to come from another world, and Godden the writer, much ‘closer’ in my imagination, very much a part of this world. Gabrielle has brought into focus the thread that runs from then to more recently; she has combined an academic interest of mine with a personal one, both of which were also, already, part-personal and part-academic, but separate in my apprehension of time.

* Quotations from ‘On the Terrace’ are taken from Anne Michaels, Poems: The Weight of Oranges; Miner’s Pond; Skin Divers, Knopf, 2001.

** Quotations from the chapters titled ‘Renoir, Ben, Macmillan, Renoir’ and ‘America’ are taken from Rumer Godden, A House with Four Rooms, Macmillan, 1989.

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