‘It once might have been, once only:
We lodged in a street together,
You, a sparrow on the housetop lonely,
I, a lone she-bird of his feather.’
From 'Youth and Art' by Robert Browning (1812-1889)
It's a very popular day for birthdays today. There's the painter Renoir (1841), the novelist and critic Anthony Burgess (1917), the actor Sir Tom Courtenay (1937) and the film maker and all round good guy David (Lord) Puttnam (1941). It’s been fun thinking about what I could cook for any of these anniversaries – French Café food, something with oranges, something fishy because Tom Courtenay is from my home city of Hull and I’m at a bit of a loss for David Puttman, except it should be barbecued on a chariot of fire.
I put a lot of writers and poets on this blog because words are my first love and consequently we have less artists and musicians. So for a change let’s talk about a painter. What do I think of, when I think of Renoir? Parisian cafes, pretty women, gorgeous frocks, dashing young men, voluptuous nudes, wine, sunshine…. indeed Renoir himself said ‘Why shouldn't art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world.’
Renoir captured all the frivolity of French café life in the late nineteenth century. He started life as a painter of porcelain but by the age of 19 he was living in Paris where he met his friends Monet and Sisley - members of the incipient impressionist movement. Renoir threw himself into the sort of rackety artistic life that Puccini portrayed in ‘La Boheme’. In a letter to his fellow painter Bazille he said ‘Although we (he and Monet) don't eat every day, I am still quite cheerful.’
His early paintings show boat trips and picnics full of young people – many of them portraits of Renoir’s friends, all having a jolly good time. Like many of his fellow impressionists he preferred natural light and so often painted outside – indeed he was almost thrown into the Seine during the days of the Paris Commune in 1871 when he was thought to be a spy. I think the dappled light of this scene is simply wonderful.
Le Moulin de la Galette (1876)
Renoir fully established his reputation with a solo exhibition held at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in Paris in 1883 and his paintings from the 1880s reflect a move away from Impresssionism towards classical art and the female nude. In 1887, he completed a series of studies of a group of nude female figures known as "The Bathers". Unsurpassed in their representation of feminine grace, they show Renoir’s huge skill in depicting the textures of skin and drapery.
His later life was marred by horrible arthritis but he continued to paint even though he had to have the brush placed in his hand. He moved to the balmier climate of the south of France and his late pictures show the luminosity of light and landscape there. He died in Provence in 1919.
So here’s a little peasant dish that Renoir and Monet might have rustled up in their chilly studio up in Montmartre.
Omelette au pain (for one)
One egg, half a cup of breadcrumbs, salt and pepper, knob of butter.
Break the egg and whisk with a fork, add the breadcrumbs and leave until thoroughly soaked through. Season well. Heat your omelette pan and when it’s really hot add the butter. Whilst it’s still frothy pour in the egg mixture and turn down the heat to half. When the bottom is nicely cooked, flip to the centre and turn out onto the plate.
This is omelette au pain at its most basic; you can add cheese, onion, bits of bacon – whatever there is in the cupboard.
‘Ces nymphes, je les veux perpétuer.
Leur incarnat léger qu’il voltige dans l’air
Assoupi de sommeils touffus.’
From ‘L'après-midi d'un faune’ by Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898)
Trans: 'These nymphs, I would immortalise them. /
Their rosy flesh that hovers there, light
In the air /drowsy with dense slumbers.'