Despite last week’s snow and temperatures in the twenties, spring is finally arriving. What better way to celebrate than traveling to France? At the National Gallery, Jean Renoir and Vincent Van Gogh offer free round-trip tickets to Paris and Auvers. Walk to galleries eighty-three and eighty-five and allow the artists’ distinctive lighting and brushstrokes to pull you into the warm-weather scenes.
In “Pont Neuf, Paris,” Renoir explores city life along the Seine. Some pedestrians stroll along the bridge’s sidewalks while others pause to examine a street vendor’s flowers. A horse-drawn buggy and a car pass each other as a trolley approaches over the crest of the bridge. The azure sky dotted with puffy white clouds brightens the quotidian scene and illuminates the facades of cream-colored townhouses lining the Seine’s far bank.
This warm outdoor scene captures Renoir’s impressionist style. The shades of baby blue in the sky and the glowing tans and yellows of the road exemplify Renoir’s focus on lighting. As an impressionist, Renoir strove to capture particular moments in time, such as this late afternoon in Paris; he dedicated his attention to lighting to achieve a snapshot affect. In this particular instance, the setting sun illuminates the bridge while the canal wall casts the Seine in shadow and turns the water dark purple.
Renoir and other impressionists painted their scenes while outdoors, a technique that gained popularity in the mid-19th century. Instead of making ink sketches outdoors and later recreating the colors from memory in a studio, Renoir painted this image in the open air. The novel “plein air” method allowed Renoir and others to capture the moment as they saw it from a particular perspective, likely from a balcony or terrace, in this case. Finally the loose brush strokes, typical of impressionists, convey the feeling of a fleeting moment captured in paint. Renoir used color, not line, as his protagonist, which creates softer scenes that come into focus farther away from the canvas.
Similarly, in “Green Wheat Fields, Auvers,” Van Gogh uses light and brushstroke to represent a hill that has severe bed head: curling shafts of uncut wheat form a tangle of green and teal in the painting’s foreground. An aquamarine sky with swaths of cloud hangs above the hill. Though not an impressionist like Renoir, Van Gogh’s post-impressionist style also focuses on light and vibrant color. Van Gogh captured the light in the sheen of the wheat plants by highlighting some of the green curves with cream or white. Unlike in “Pont Neuf, Paris,” no clear light source exists in Van Gogh’s piece; the light radiates from the rich greens, teals, and blues of the fields. Similar to Renoir, Van Gogh favors color over line. However, he still utilizes a variety of linear techniques; Van Gogh’s brush strokes are clearly defined with large quantities of paint. For instance, the paint in the small, ovular cloud resting on top of the hill is about a quarter-inch thick. Van Gogh created undulating lines in the outlines of the clouds and the wheat stocks as well as straight, geometric lines in the bottom-right corner.
Van Gogh painted the Auvers landscape in a more subjective manner, but both he and Renoir used vibrant color and unblended brushstrokes to capture the light and the moment. Even if snow continues to fall in April, the National Gallery provides a spring escape through the paintings of Renoir and Van Gogh.
Photo: Tori Morgan/The Georgetown Voice