Examination: Renoir's Portrayal of Contemporary Life and Childhood
Read how Renoir painted both a scene from modern, everyday life and a portrait of children at work in this 1879 picture of sister acrobats.
Many Faces: Modern Portraits and Identities
Art Institute of Chicago, Museum Education Department: Teacher Programs. Many Faces: Modern Portraits & Identities, 1997, p. 16-17.
In this engaging 1879 picture, Pierre Auguste Renoir bridges the categories of genre painting and portraiture. Both a scene from modern everyday life, and a portrait of children at work, the painting depicts Francisca and Angelina Wartenberg, daughters of a traveling German family of acrobats who performed at the famed Circus Fernando in Paris in 1879. Recently opened, the Montmartre circus held evening performances that were favorite pastimes and subjects for Renoir, Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Claude Monet (1840-1926), Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) and other friends in their ongoing quest to depict contemporary life.
Of the artists dubbed Impressionists, Renoir was celebrated for his portraits, particularly of women and children. Here, the artist depicts the two sisters just as they have finished their act. Although identically dressed, the girls reveal entirely different personalities as they make their transition from center stage celebrity to the obscurity of their life offstage. Holding her pose, the sister on the left turns to the crowd, acknowledging its applause, while the other sister turns away, almost dreamily. She faces us holding an armful of oranges, a rare treat thrown to performers as tribute by a pleased audience. Tissue still wraps an orange by her feet. We look at her, but her eyes— and thoughts—are elsewhere.
The painting epitomizes concerns of Impressionist artists in both subject matter and style. To render this scene from modern life, Renoir uses bright colors applied with his characteristic brushstroke. As a reviewer proclaimed at the time: "There is no sense of arrangement whatsoever. [Renoir] has captured the two children’s movements with unbelievable subtlety and immediacy. This is exactly how they walked, bowed, and smiled in the circus ring."
In actuality, the sisters posed in costume in Renoir’s studio. The light in the circus, he insisted, "turns faces into grimaces." But because he had been charmed by their performance, he brought them to his studio so that he could paint them as if en plein air— in the bright daylight—that was so important to the Impressionists. Renoir took other liberties as well in order to present them as types—as young, innocent circus performers—rather than as individuals with inner lives. In reality fourteen and seventeen years old in 1879, these sisters appear around ten and twelve in the Art Institute’s painting.
As Renoir once declared: For me a picture ... should be something likeable, joyous, and pretty—yes pretty." From working class origins, Renoir originally trained as a porcelain painter before turning to fine art. His preferred world view was an ideal one, a mythic reality. "There are enough ugly things in life for us not to add to them," he insisted. In the Art Institute portrait, he has all but excluded the circus’s unsavory elements. He envelops the sisters in a virtual halo of pinks, oranges, yellows, and whites, while he pushes to the edges of the composition the partially seen, darkly clothed (mainly male) spectators who com-posed the less wholesome nocturnal demimonde of the nineteenth-century circus in which these two sisters were growing up. Calm, unsullied, these girls seem to exist in a splendid, trouble free zone far removed from the shady din of the circus. This vision of the pure, innocent world of childhood did not appeal just to Renoir. The famed Chicago collector Mrs. Potter Palmer purchased Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando in 1892, and for the thirty years prior to her death, was so enamored of Renoir’s portrayal of these two circus girls that she kept the picture with her at all times, even during her travels abroad.
The actual lives of Francisca and Angelina Wartenberg, however, were not as glamorous. Unlike, for example, Frederick Douglass, who became one of the most photographed men of the nineteenth century, these girls lived the remainder of their lives in relative obscurity. They continued to perform with their family, moving to San Francisco as of 1889. By 1893, Francisca, the older sister who continued to play to the audience in Renoir’s portrayal, was per-forming on her own and married. Of the younger, more pensive Angelina, all that is known is that she was still alive, ostensibly in San Francisco, as of the early 1940s.