Renoir self-portrait circa 1910Self-portrait by Renoir (c. 1910)

Many of the great discoveries which were to transform the world had now been made: iron ore was smelted in blast-furnaces, coal was mined at greater depths, cloth was manufactured by machine. Yet, except in England, the industrial revolution had not entirely changed things. Apart from their dress and tools, peasants in the country around Limoges worked the land in almost the same way as their ancestors in the time of Vercingétorix. The Champs-Elysées was not yet built; oil lamps were still used for lighting; people still depended on water-carriers for water; the poor went to the public fountain.

The telegraph was still in the experimental stage. Houses were heated by open fires, and the chimneys were cleaned by little ‘sweeps’ who climbed directly up the flues, wore old stovepipe hats, and kept pet marmots. Sugar, which was sold in big blocks, was broken in pieces with a pointed tool and hammer. Fires were put out (sometimes) by men forming a chain and passing along buckets of water. There were no sewage systems, for the simple reason that there were no sewers: the chamber-pot was king. The rich were just beginning, regretfully, to abandon the night-commode.

Vegetables were grown in one’s own backyard, or else in the neighbouring market-gardens. Wine was served in jugs: for bottles were a luxury — they were blown straight on to the end of long tubes by young boys in the glassworks. Many of these young workers died of consumption and none of their bottles were alike. Butchers slaughtered their animals in the rear of the shop, or else in the courtyard. Housewives who came to buy a nice joint of meat were met by the ‘executioner’, apron and hands smeared with blood. It was impossible to ignore the fact that the pleasure and strength derived from meat-eating had to be paid for by suffering and death.

Anaesthesia was unknown; and so were microbes and antibiotics. Women gave birth to children in pain, in accordance with the decree of the Creator. Poor women nursed their babies at the breast; the rich hired a wet-nurse whose hair was tied up with little bows of different-coloured ribbons. It often happened that the wet-nurse would favour her own offspring at the expense of the rich woman’s child, thus causing it to develop a pale complexion, which was thought to be very distinguished. Society women were tubercular, and coughed up blood: a healthy colour and a well-developed bust were considered to be in bad taste — only peasant women could afford to look so alluring.

Sports in general were unknown. The poor played hand-ball and made free with the girls; the rich went riding. Smokers rolled their own cigarettes. Locks, carriage-springs, tools and banister-railings were forged by hand. Artisans lived over their shops; they did not yet have to make long trips underground in the Paris Metro, to get to factories. Mills run by machinery did not exist; flour retained all the vitamins of the wheat; bread was course and nourishing. Workmen worked twelve hours a day, and earned one franc fifty.

A dozen eggs cost one sou and there were thirteen to the dozen. One sou was a large sum: it was worth two liards (equal to one English farthing in those days) and for one liard you could buy half a bun. On coming out of church after Mass a ‘respectable’ woman would hand a liard to her favourite among the poor. If she had given him a sou her righteousness would have been questioned: she would have been suspected of wanting to appropriate another’s property, a beggar being looked upon as an ornament — like a fan, a silk parasol or a pair of gloves.

There were no gramophones. The rich had to go to concerts for their music; they could also learn to play the piano, if they chose. The poor played the penny flute, and sang patriotic songs by the popular composer Béranger. In summer they danced in little open-air cafés under the trees on the outskirts of Paris. They had to be satisfied with a flesh-and-blood band. The can-can was the favourite dance in the poorer quarters, while the better classes were just taking up the new waltz steps, which were frowned upon by the Church.

The average expectation of life in France was thirty-five years. In spite of the massacres of the Napoleonic Wars, France had a larger population than the other countries of Western Europe. Algiers had been taken fifteen years before. The Duc d’Aumale was adored by the Arabs. Alexandre Dumas’s play Napoleon was a triumph at the Porte Saint-Martin Theatre, which was larger then and could accommodate an audience of four thousand people. The play took three consecutive evenings to perform. Motion pictures had not yet been invented, nor radio nor television. There was no such thing as photography: the self-made man who wanted a portrait of himself had to apply to a painter, and so did a shopkeeper who wanted a picture of his shop to hang in his parlour.

Such was the condition of the world in 1845 when my father arrived in Paris by the diligence of Limoges.

Renoir, My FatherRenoir on the steps of the Château des Brouillards (c. 1895)

Renoir, My Father (Collins, 1962) written by Jean Renoir (1894-1979).

Reprint edition (2001) on,

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April 3, 2015

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