Toward the end of 1877 Renoir painted the portrait of Hyacinthe-Eugéne Meunier, known as Eugéne Murer (1846-1906) —celebrated pastry cook and restaurateur, published novelist and poet, and avid collector of the works of Pissarro, Guillaumin, Sisley, and Renoir. This small canvas—a number 8—followed a format that Renoir had begun to use for the informal portraiture of his sponsors. It may be compared to his earlier paintings of Victor Chocquet and to his portrait of the Republican official Jacques-Eugene Spuller , which has been convincingly redated to 1877 and is very similar to the Murer portrait in handling and arrangement. Renoir’s ravishing portrait of Murer’s son, Paul Meunier, painted between 1877 and 1879, is of similar dimensions.
In the portrait of Eugene Murer, Renoir’s loose and brushy handling adapts itself almost effortlessly to the constraints imposed both by genre—the public nature of commissioned portraiture informal—and by size. It is clear from the slight change in the placement of Murer’s left hand and a certain indecision as to where the edge of his sleeve and the line of his shirt cuff should meet that Renoir experienced some difficulty in arriving at the appropriate pose for his model. Once solved, the formula was repeated in his portrait of Murer’s half-sister, Marie Murer’s elegant frock coat and gilet are painted freely, the white ground showing through the thin layers of blue-black paint. His blue-black foulard and pink pocket handkerchief—accessories of a dandy—are indicated by the most summary of strokes. Yet, at the same time, Renoir painted the two fine lines of blue silk to which Murer’s spectacles are attached: these fall from the buttons of his waistcoat and disappear behind the wide lapel, an astonishing detail and one wholly unexpected in this bravura passage.
It is in the painting of Murer’s face, however, that Renoir’s handling is at its most exquisitely controlled. Murer’s beard is a panoply of color, delicate touches of olive green, mauve grey, and orange that merge imperceptibly and whose richness is deliberately muted. The flesh tones of Murer’s face are enlivened by a filigree of coloured strokes—note especially the blues on the temples, under his eyes, around his nose—striations that give rhythm and mobility to Murer’s intense gaze, but draw no attention to themselves.
In fact, the virtuosity and variety in Renoir’s handling are secondary to his chief purpose: the creation of character and the exploration of intimacy. “Not only does he capture the features of his sitters,” wrote Théodore Duret in Les Peintres Impressionnistes, published a year after the portrait of Eugene Murer was painted, “but it is through these traits that he grasps both their character and their private selves." In this portrait, Murer appears as a sensitive, almost melancholy, sitter, frail and wistful, his slight frame overwhelmed by a costume that seems a little too large for him. Such vulnerability and introspection were by no means the characteristics most readily associated with Murer; the degree of idealization in Renoir’s portrait of Murer becomes apparent in surveying the biography of this interesting figure.
Murer was born in Moulins, in central France, on May 20, 1846 Reared by his grandmother and much afflicted by the neglect of his parents, he came to Paris in the early 1860s. After a brief passage in anarchitect’s office, he was apprenticed as a pastry cook with Eugene Gru, a socialist and little-known author who would remain in Murer’s circle during the 1870s. Around 1866 Murer opened his own pastry shop and restaurant at 95 boulevard Voltaire in the eleventh arron-dissement. He married; a child, Paul Meunier, was born in 1869 Nothing is known of his wife, who died shortly after childbirth. During the following decade, he was assisted at 95 boulevard Voltaire by his half-sister, the carlier-mentioned Marie, whose portrait would also be painted by Pissarro.
Murer’s business flourished sufficiently during the 1870s for him to devote more and more time to writing: in 1876 he published a novel, Frémes; in 1877, a collection of stories and poems called Les Fils du sizcle. Much taken with Auvers-sur-Oise, where he had gone as a guest of Dr. Paul Gachet to recover from illness, Murer built a house there—the appropriately named Castel du Four—into which he and his sister moved in 1881, Having sold his restaurant in Paris, Murer then acquired the Hotel du Dauphin et d’Espagne in the center of Rouen, and together with his sister continued as a hotelier until her marriage in February 1897 to the playwright and theatre director Jerome Doucet, Murer exhibited his collection of Impressionist paintings at the Hétel du Dauphin et d’Espagne in May 1896; the paintings were, in fact, sold later that year to provide his sister Marie with her marriage portion. Murer would also be obliged to liquidate the hotel in Rouen. He spent the last decade of his life as a painter and pastelist—prolific but utterly mediocre, dividing his time between Auvers and his studio at 39 rue Victor-Massé in Montmartre.
It was during the second half of the 1870s that Murer’ interest in the Impressionists flourished. Reunited in 1872 with his school friend Armand Guillaumin, Murer began to hold regular Wednesday evening dinner parties at 95 boulevard Voltaire to which writers, musicians, and artists were invited. Zola, Cézanne, Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir, and Gachet attended, as did Alphonse Legrand, former employee of Durand-Ruel, who had recently begun dealing in works of the Impressionists independently and who would establish a gallery on the rue Lafitte in 18778 Legrand may well have been responsible for encouraging Murer’s interest in Impressionism and bringing him into contact with Renoir, who was soon requesting an advance from him against paintings on deposit with Legrand.
The heyday of Murer’s collecting spans a brief but intense three years. Between 1877 and 1879 his collection of Impressionist painting grew rapidly, and he noted to Monet in the spring of 1880 that “with the hundred paintings I own, I'm beginning to feel quite well off in Impressionists” Renoir and Pissarro decorated his apartment and were commissioned to paint a series of family portraits. Murer wrote articles reviewing the early impressionist exhibitions; he loaned five works from his collection to the Fourth Exhibition of 1879; and submitted a proposal for a rejuvenated salon to the Chronique des Tribunaux of May 1880. By this time his own collection had achieved a certain fame. As early as 1878 his name had appeared alongside those of Georges de Bellio and Chocquet as an important collector of Impressionism. He was mentioned at length in an April 1880 article in Le Gog Gaulois, where the author was astonished that a pastry cook could have an apartment filled with Impressionist paintings. In 1878 Pissarro asked Murer’s permission to bring the Italian art critic Diego Martelli to visit the collection. Although no catalogue of his collection was ever published, a relatively full listing by Paul Alexis, a friend of Cézanne’s and Zola’s, appeared in the radical newspaper Le Cri du Peuple, in October 1887. Murer’s collection at this point numbered some 122 works, including 27 paintings by Sisley, 24 by Pissarro, 21 by Guillaumin, 14 by Renoir, g by Monet, and 8 by Cézanne.
Murer’s sponsorship of the emerging Impressionists consisted largely in advancing money to Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, and Monet—all of whom were chronically impoverished in these years—in return for a specified number of canvases, either painted or to be painted. He seems to have felt at liberty to take paintings of whatever dimensions pleased him, and was relentless in ensuring that these artists fulfilled their obligations, which he often tried to make contractual. He paid little for these works: normally between 50 and 100 francs, and, on exception, 150 francs—prices not outrageously low for the time—although Pissarro was desperate enough to sell his paintings for as little as 20 francs. Murer took it upon himself to offer artists work to other clients, often without consulting them as to price, and was not always scrupulous in returning works he had taken on consignment. As late as January 1897, Pissarro wrote reminding Murer that he still owed him a painting he had shown fifteen years before to the collector Laurent Richard and then kept for himself “without any right and against all justice.” Since Murer’s collection had been sold just months before, it is unlikely that Pissarro ever received satisfaction on this point.
The case against Murer, eloquently put by Georges Riviere in Renoir et ses amis, rests upon this sort of malpractice. Not only was he a voracious collector, the argument runs, but he was also an exploitative one, arriving at artists’ studios when the rent was due, buying paintings by the armful for derisory sums in order to sell them years later at enormous profit. This both credits Murer with a farsightedness that was beyond him and underestimates his commitment to the new painting at a time when such support was rare. Neither as generous as Gustave Caillebotte nor as discriminating as Chocquet, Murer was an impassioned if not altogether sympathetic partisan of Impressionism, who believed that “to buy his paintings is the greatest compliment that can be paid to an artist.”
If Monet found Murer’s determination to extract canvases repugnant—Monets letters of September and November 1878 are the most indignant he ever wrote to a collector —Pissarro and Renoir maintained good relations with him long after he had stopped collecting. Although never entirely trusting him, both artists and their families sited Murer in Auvers and Rouen, Renoir buying artist's materials for him in Paris and even finding a couple to replace Murer and his sister at the Hotel du Dauphin et d’Espagne during a particularly busy summer season.
Through Pissarro, Murer came into contact with Gauguin—who lived in Rouen between November 1883 and November 1884—and tried, unsuccessfully, to promote his work. Gauguin had shown at least one painting at Murer’s hotel, but was skeptical of his promises to sell it. Nonetheless, “Le Malin Murer,” as Gauguin called him, is found. writing to Gachet in June 1890, asking him to rent rooms to. Mme Gauguin and her children for three months.
Through Gachet, Murer met Van Gogh, whom he conside greatest colorist of the century after Renoir. Murer owned two of his paintings, notably Fritillaries in a Copper Vase, 1887 (Musée dOrsay, Paris). Coming across him as he was painting, Van Gogh commented, “You are thin, and your painting is too thin. It needs fattening up.” Murer was sufficiently struck by this to record the conversation in his diary. He also recorded Van Goghis suicide and last hours in a poignant journal entry that seems to have escaped the notice of most scholars.
But it was Renoir—in Murer’s words, “the greatest artist of our century’—whom Murer esteemed above all others and whose paintings formed the core of his collection. Murer owned splendid examples of Renoir’s paintings of the 1870s, including The Harem, 1872 (National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo), the portrait of Alfred Sisley, 1874 (The Art Institute of Chicago), The Painter's Studio, rue Saint-Georges, 1876 (Norton Simon Foundation, Los Angeles), and The Arbor, 1876 (Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow). Neither Pissarro nor Sisley, whose work Murer collected in even greater number, was represented by such consistently choice paintings.
Murer undeniably bought his Renoirs cheaply—Pissarro was amazed that Renoir had agreed to paint the family portraits for 100 francs each—but in 1877 Murer’s financial support was crucial to the painter. In October of that year, Renoir, in desperation, had solicited Léon Gambetta for the curatorship of a provincial museum, a request that would have drastically altered the development of his art had it been granted.
The portrait of Eugene Murer expresses Renoir’s affection and gratitude in a way that his aloof letters to this rather demanding Amphitryon never could. As homage to a friend and patron, the painting may also have inspired Van Gogh, whose celebrated portrait of Dr. Gachet, painted in June 1890, reversed the pose that Renoir had chosen for Murer, Van Gogh had arrived in Auvers-sur- Oise in May 1890 and may well have seen Murer’s collection, Renoir’s portrait was certainly known to Gachet, who had been a close friend of Murer’s since the early 1870s.
The portrait of Eugene Murer remained in Murer’s possession after his other paintings by Renoir were acquired by the Parisian dentist George Viau in 1897. Following Murer’s death on April 22, 1906, the portrait passed to his son, Paul, by then a garage owner in Beaulieu, in the south of France. Paul Gachet noted with scorn that dealers were hesitant to pay the modest sum of 6,000 francs for the painting, and that it was eventually sold in 1907 for 2,500 francs.