I own two photographs of Jules Renard (1864-1910). There is no indication of when either of them was taken, and at times I have wondered if they are really of the same man. In the first, from a series called ‘Nos contemporains chez eux’, he sits at a cluttered desk; behind him is a scruffy bookcase and a calendar showing the first of some month; on the floral wallpaper hangs a looped speaking tube, perhaps for ordering his mid-morning coffee. He looks wary and fierce, badger-like, as if he has just been dragged from his sett, stuffed into a suit that scarcely fits and ordered to face the camera: the result is one of the most ill-at-ease author photos I have ever seen. The second shows a leaner, older figure, identifiably the same person from the hairline, big right ear and droop of the moustache; otherwise he seems a different man, a different writer. Fingers elegantly interlaced, he poses in a tapestried chair of the studio photographer Pierre Petit (of place Cadet, Paris); he is in morning dress, with a huge knot to his tie and the visible ribbon of the Légion d’honneur (which dates the portrait to post-1900). He looks worldly, a confident man of achievement: perhaps a city mayor whose recent improvements to sewerage and street lighting have been much applauded by the bourgeoisie.
LRB 30 June 2011 | PDF Download