Renan was the son of the Breton scholar Ernest Renan, who pioneered modern secular study of the life of Jesus. His mother was the daughter of painter Hendrik Scheffer and the niece of painter Ary Scheffer, after whom he was named. Renan followed his grandfather and great-uncle into a career as an artist, becoming associated with the Symbolist movement. He studied with Elie Delaunay and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (a one time student of his grandfather). He also became a close friend of Gustave Moreau.
Suffering from a physical disability, Ary Renan nevertheless travelled widely, to Asia and Algeria. He also spent a lot of time in Brittany. He exhibited work from 1880. His works are influenced by his travels and by Symbolist poetry.
The Musée de la Vie Romantique in Paris holds a significant number of his works. His Symbolist masterwork The Diver – The Coral Fisherman, 1882, was purchased by the Columbus Museum of Art (Ohio) in 2014.
Renan followed his father as a leader of the secularist movement in Brittany. He co-founded the organisation Bretons de Paris, along with Armand Dayot. It evolved into the Ligue des bleus de Bretagne which grew in Brittany from dissatisfaction with the conservative and clerical bias of the existing Breton Regionalist Union, founded a few months earlier. However, Renan died shortly after its foundation.
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- Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, Les Peintres de l'Âme, le Symbolisme idéaliste en France.
- Loic Thomas, "Armand Dayot et la ligue des bleus de Bretagne", Colloque - les Bleus de Bretagne de la revolution a nos jours, Archives departmental de Saint-Brieuc, 1990, pp. 351-62