Artists: Renoir's Subjects

Figure 1.--This painting of Jean at age 7 in 1901 was one of the family's favorites and hung in their home for years--much to Jean's embarrassment as he grew up.

Renoir is perhaps the best loved of all the impressionists, in part due to his vibrant colors and subjects such as flowers and young children as well of course beautiful women. He loved to paint young girls and children and his sons made pretty and convenient models. The boys were dressed in dresses when they were little and often smocks when they were a bit older. Often it is difficult to identify the gender of the children he painted without knowing just who was being painted. Renoir's sons all had long hair as boys. After their long hair was cut, he never painted them as older boys.


Often it is dificult to identify the gender of the children he painted without knowing just who was being painted. This is not particularly unusual as it is often difficult to identify the gender of young children during this period. Both the clothing styles and the hair styles could be confusing. This same problem has complicated our assessment of the photograohic record. In some cases we actually know the identity of the child painted. One of these is girl with a hoop. Some authors have changed the names of Renoirs's paintings to conform with moden gender conventions. In this case we know the child is a girl, 9-year-old named Marie Goujon that he was commissioned to paint in 1885.

Renoir's Sons

Renoir loved to paint girls and young children. He did not have any daughters, but his sons made convenient models. They were certainly as pretty as little girls would have been so he never lacked for available models. I'm not sure just what the boys thought of this, but as they were quite young, they probably did have any objection. I'm not sure how much he insisted they pose for him. Young children can get quite bored during any prolonged period of inactivity. I don't know the answner to this question, but one HBC contributor is reviewing Jean Renoir's autobiography for possible details. We do know that one of his sons. Jean, was rather embarassed of a portait of him that the family kept hanging at home. He was painted in a lace-trimed Fauntleroy suit and long hair with a hair bow. I'm not sure what he thought of the outfit at the time. It was as an older boy that he began to object to the painting. One author writes, "In the majority of Renoir’s paintings of his sons they do not look masculine. In many cases, they are presented as entirely feminine. Renoir feminized his sons by focusing on their long girlish hair. This focus seems to have becomes an obsession for Renoir, mirroring his most famous fetish: his obsession with women. This is true to the point that the two obsessions become one. By painting his sons with long blonde hair, he made them appear to the viewer as young girls rather than boys, transforming them to the point that one wonders if he had other motives in painting them besides showing his “depth of affection.” Did Renoir desire daughters because of his obsession with all things female, for instance? Or did he see his sons as a threat?" [Healey]

The Children


Renoir's boys were dressed in dresses when they were little and often smocks when they were a bit older. I'm not sure what type of clothes they wore under their smocks or at what age they were actually breeched.

Hair styles

The child's hair style seems to have been quite important in determining whether he was a suitable subject. Renoir's sons all had long hair as boys, hair bows were sometimes added. After their long hair was cut, he never painted them as older boys.

French Clothing Styles

I'm not sure how much the beautiful Renoir paintings tells us about French boys' clothing. I do not know, for example, if the images reflect his sons' actual clothes or if they were dressed up specially for the paintings. As some of the paintings are informal clothes like smocks, this suggests that they were their ordinary clothes. I am less sure, however, about the colors like the painting of Claude in a bright red smock. This appears to be chosen by his father for effect. Claude reluctantly posed in this costume along with white silk stockings for his father. However, he hated it. He complained more about the stockings itching his legs, however, than wearing a red smock.

Figure 2.--We do not know who the child is that posed for this famous Renoir painting, "Girl with a Watering Can", done in 1876. We had first thought that it was one of Monet's sons, but the dates are not right. Hopefully a HBC reader will know the identity of the child. The painting was executed in Monet's famous garden at Argenteuil, which Monet delighted in painting. Note the front buttoning dress style.

Mis-named Paintings

One of Renoir's best known paintings is titled "Girl with a watering can" (figure 2). It is instantly recognizable to anyone with the most minimal knowlefge of art. The original title Renoir gave the painting was reportedly "Boy With a Watering Can". The subjects of Renoir's painting are often mis-identified as to gender. This includes two well known paintings, although not as well known as "Girl with a watering can". For example, "Madame Charpentier and her daughters" and "Girl with a whip" are both paintings where the boys are mis-identified as girls. As with much of HBC's efforts to assess 19th Century fashion conventions, there is not a lot of clear cut information. It's interesting to note that Renoir himself when referring to the painting called it "Madame Charpentier and her girls" even though he must have known that the younger child was her son Paul.

Known Subjects

In many of Renoir's paintings we know the actual name of the subjects as they were done as commissions or for family friends. A good example is "The children of Martial Caillibotte (1895), the niece and nephew of a close friend. I do not know, however, who the subject of the famous "Girl with a atering can". According to a knowledgable source, this painting was made in Monet's garden and the subject is Monet's young son. The garden is of course the same garden that Monet so enjoyed painting. The dress is similar to the Fauntleroy dress and it buttons down the front, often a style for boys' dresses. It could be that Renoir used his sons to pose as little girls. Of course in the late 19th Century there was often little difference between how little boys and girls were dressed--especially in France. This varied greatly, however, from family to family. The subjects of some of his paintings may also have been misidentifed by art sealers and critics that assume a child in a dress and with long hair is a girl.

Unknown Subjects

There are a number of subjects in Renoir's paintings that we have been unable to identify. 'Girl with a watering can' is one of them, although we think that the identity is known and we have not yet been able to find the identity. The subject in other paintings may not be known. Renpir left an emense body of work with a sibstantial number of children. We will archive the unknown images here until we are able to identify them. One of these paintings is 'The little fishergirl'.


Healey, Cara. "Renoir’s Daughters: How Renoir Feminized His Sons," Princeton University website.


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Created: August 13, 1999
Last updated: 9:38 PM 5/31/2010