the olive grove that saved renoir

the olive grove that saved renoir

“The story of Cagnes and Renoir is a love story—Cagnes seemed to be waiting for Renoir, and he adopted it.” - Jean Renoir

Nestled in the foothills of Cagnes-sur-Mer, a small coastal village in the south of France, lies Les Collettes: an ancient olive grove, an orange orchard, and a wild garden. This idyllic landscape, despite its charm, faced the threat of destruction by developers in 1907. Rumors say a nursery sought the sunlit property to grow carnations a flower that was at the peak of popularity at the time. The monetization of this land, however, would involve uprooting and discarding the 150 olive trees sprawled across it.

When French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir heard news of this, he impulsively bought the estate for the sole reason of saving the olive grove that was doomed to destruction. He hated the thought that these beautiful, historic trees would soon be turned into paperweights and bowls. Together with his wife, they built a farmhouse overlooking the grove and gardens. This picturesque setting not only served as a haven for Renoir during the final decade of his life but also became a major motif, inspiring some of the most coveted works in art history.

The Farm at Les Collettes, 1908–14, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.

Photograph of Renoir’s home at Les Collettes, surrounded by olive trees.

Photograph of the olive grove and orange orchard from Renoir’s dining room.


scenes from les collette

It did not take long for Renoir to find inspiration in the area around Cagnes— the sunlight, olive groves, wildflowers, and all the beauty in between. Les oliviers de Cagnes is the one of the first pieces Renoir painted at his new home—a painting of the olive grove, of course.

Les oliviers de Cagnes, 1909, oil on canvas.

 As we have also learned from the works of Post-Impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh, the olive tree can be incredibly difficult to paint. Despite this, the majority of pieces Renoir created on his estate during his final years consisted primarily of olive trees. Renoir wrote about the difficulty of painting the olive tree’s beauty:

The olive tree, what a swine! If you only knew what it did to me. A tree full of colour. Not grey at all. Its little leaves made me sweat! A gust of wind, and my tree changes colour…

Renoir loved the olive trees more than any other on his estate. His family did, in fact, press the olives into oil. Sources even say that Renoir had a special ritual where he would taste the first pressing with a sprinkle of sea salt on a piece of warm toast. He said his olives embodied a distinct flavor that he believed was superior to all other groves in the south of France.

Olive Trees, Cagnes19013–14 oil on canvas.

the struggles in renoir’s late life

The world behind Renoir’s paintings was not quite as blissful as his physical surroundings. The artist suffered from various health conditions in his late life, such as rheumatism and partial facial paralysis; however, the onset of rheumatoid arthritis in his early fifties severely limited his mobility over his entire last twenty years. The illness deformed and mangled Renoir’s hands, requiring him to change his painting technique by, essentially, tying a paintbrush to his hand. The lack of control this caused subsequently altered his brushstrokes.

In the photo above, Renoir’s hands are clearly deformed by the disease. Despite this, he remained positive, not allowing his condition to affect his artwork or diminish the beauty he saw in the landscapes around him. The illness instilled within Renoir a certain urgency to paint more, as every day, he headed deeper into paralysis. He doubled his painting activity and worked frantically up until the very last day of his life at age 78.

This may just be one of our favorite portraits of Renoir—not one by him but of him. We can’t help but continue to reflect on it, as it serves as a potent reminder of the realities of life. Here, Renoir is pictured in the last year of his life, sitting outside in the cold, surrounded by decaying foliage, with a paintbrush tied to his arthritic hand and house slippers on his feet—a behind-the-scenes glimpse that is far from a perfect reality yet still incredibly beautiful.

beauty in the imperfect

Renoir’s distinct painting style depicts a dreamy, nostalgic, romantic world—one that many of us may long to see engulf our own lives . Perhaps,  that’s why so many of us feel lost. We see movies, paintings, and social media posts capturing moments of an idyllic world. Yet, no matter how hard we strive, we fall short of attaining this “perfect” life we think so many others have found. The  truth is, this life doesn’t exist—at least not in its entirety.

We don’t doubt the existence of the utter tranquility Renoir captured in his paintings. Perhaps the reason many of us can’t find it for ourselves is because we are looking past it. Maybe this beauty lies in the minutiae of the day—the sun streaming through the window, a handful of strawberries on the table, a warm meal, a wave hello—or maybe this beauty is found while walking hand-in-hand with the pain, grief, confusion, discomfort, or longing you are experiencing right now.

Marriage Under the Olive Trees, 1908–1919, oil on canvas.

Despite the illnesses that ravaged his body, Renoir looked to the beauty that flooded his sunny estate and made it his mission to focus only on that. He created some of his most beloved works during this time, even when his hands were on the cusp of total paralysis.

Many art historians have labeled the olive tree “unpicturesque” with its knotted, twisted trunk and feeble foliage. To this day, they question why so many artists throughout the centuries have been drawn to depict them in their artwork—from Picasso to Van Gogh. Renoir, after all, bought an entire estate simply to preserve an olive grove that was headed toward destruction by developers. He loved the olive trees’ unique characteristics. Their gnarled and weathered trunks only added to their beauty and resiliency—just like the painter’s own two hands.

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