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In the late summer of 1883 the famous French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir visited Guernsey and produced about fifteen paintings of scenes on and around Moulin Huet, the beach just a short walk down the lane from the Bella Luce. Renoir visited Guernsey with friends, including fellow artist Paul Lhote and quite possibly Aline Charigot who he would go on to marry in 1890. He stayed at No.4, George Road, St Peter Port, which at the time was the main road south out of town and around a two-mile walk from Moulin Huet.
“What a pretty little place! What pretty paths! Superb rocks, beaches such as Robinson must have had on his island, as well as rump steak and ale at manageable prices – up to now, everything is fine. All I have to do is to take advantage of the admirable weather and bring you back some nice things so that you can forgive my infidelity to beautiful Normandy.”
Renoir, in a letter to Edmond Maitre.
September 5th, 1883.
The reason for Renoir’s visit is unclear; at the time Guernsey was of more interest to British tourists in search of a southern island idyll than to French tourists venturing to rugged islands off their north coast, and to most French people at the time Guernsey was known simply as the island that had sheltered Victor Hugo during his period in exile from 1855-1870. Many of the nineteenth century guidebooks featuring Guernsey make note of Moulin Huet as a particular beauty spot with one, Grigg’s Guide to Guernsey, Alderney and Sark specifically recommending it to visiting artists in its 1880 edition.
“This is a famous resort for artists, many of whom have commited to canvas the lovely and ever-changing aspect its locality presents; while poets too have sung of its charms in language which such scenes alone inspire.”
Renoir produced fifteen small works during his time on Guernsey, however not all were complete; he painted four landscapes specifically for his Parisian dealer Paul Durand-Ruel and a series of fast sketches of sea and rocks and unfinished studies of bathers on the beach at Moulin Huet which it is thought he intended to use as “documents” for painting later pictures back in his studio in Paris. The four views of Moulin Huet Bay would have been painted and sold to fund Renoir’s personal projects that had not yet become so critically and commercially successful, which at the time involved explorations of the human form. All are views looking down to Moulin Huet from the track close to the bottom end of the Water Lane where the car park can now be found. The surrounding woodland has grown too tall and dense to locate precisely the spot where Renoir is likely to have set up his easel, however the remains of the cottage that appears in several of his paintings can be used as a reference point. Renoir was known not to stray far from the footpath in search of vistas to paint, so it is possible to find your way to the spot where he would have set himself over 130 years ago.
As a French Impressionist of this era Renoir focused primarily on the effect of light upon a scene and its occupants, and often sacrificed accuracy of representation and attention to detail in order to achieve the desired overall effect. As such, background elements in several of Renior’s works depicting scenes at Moulin Huet are not entirely accurate in their placement.
He was fascinated by the informality of locals bathing in the sea, in contrast to the strict customs of formal bathing observed at the time, and sought to recreate these scenes as a celebration of the human form in the natural world.
“Here people bathe among the rocks which serve as cabins, since there’s nothing else; nothing is more attractive than this mixture of women and men crowded on these rocks. One would believe oneself in a landscape by Watteau rather than in the real world.”
Renoir, in a letter to Paul Durand-Ruel.
September 27th, 1883.
It is likely that many of the beach scenes of Moulin Huet were finished when Renoir returned to Paris, completing sketches that he had begun there or using his sketches and studies as the basis for separate works. It is possible that one of his larger and most famous works from his time on Guernsey, Children on the Seashore, could have been painted in this way and yet was still left incomplete (note in the image below the legs of the girl on the right, and the figures of bathers in the background) as he began to focus more on outdoor nudes. Renoir’s visit to Guernsey occurred at a time when he was developing as an artist, producing landscape works that he could use to fund his explorations into work that presented an idealized version of a natural scene or those focused on the human figure.
You can enjoy exploring Renoir’s landscapes on the Walking in Renoir’s Footsteps guided walking tour with Silver Accredited Guide Korinne Le Page, whose family owns the remains of the cottage above Moulin Huet that features in several of Renoir’s works. The route visits the cottage having started at the Old Mill Triangle and covers around two and a half miles through Le Vallon Estate, down the Water Lanes and around Moulin Huet Valley before finishing at the Bella Luce. Walks run every Thursday between 1.45pm and 4pm, and cost £8 per person with children under 10 going free. Korine will plan to divert past the Bella Luce to collect guests, and can organise bespoke tours for groups of four or more. Please ask at reception if you’d like us to make a reservation or organise a bespoke tour with Korinne for you.