This painting will be included in the forthcoming catalogue critique of Pierre-Auguste Renoir being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute established from the archives of François Daulte, Durand-Ruel, Venturi, Vollard and Wildenstein.
In a sun-dappled clearing at the edge of a wood sits a lively party of two rosy-cheeked children, a young woman in a ribbon-trimmed hat, and a small brown dog, together enjoying the pleasures of the countryside. A second woman in peasant garb approaches, bending forward graciously to display a basket full of apples; the seated woman lifts a small purse from her lap, evidently enticed by the wares. This congenial, inviting scene was Renoir’s most important project of July-August 1890, which he spent with his long-time companion Aline, whom he had married that spring, and their five-year-old son Pierre at Aline’s rural hometown of Essoyes. He worked out the composition in several preparatory drawings, enlisting Aline to model for the seated woman and Pierre most likely for the boy in blue, and then painted three identically sized versions in oil, of which the present canvas is the only one remaining in private hands (Dauberville, nos. 953-954; Cleveland Museum of Art, and Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia).
Since 1888, Renoir had traveled extensively each year in rural France, seeking refuge from the bustle and, in his words, the “stiff collars” of Paris. “I’m becoming more and more of a rustic,” he wrote to Morisot from Essoyes (quoted in Renoir, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1985, p. 253). While his principal subject during these sojourns was the carefree recreations of bourgeois girls, who stroll in the countryside, gather fruit or flowers, and picnic beneath trees, he also produced an important group of pictures that treat the theme of peasant life–washerwomen on the banks of the river, for instance, and grape pickers breaking from the harvest. La marchande de pommes is exceptional in Renoir’s oeuvre for combining these two themes in a single scene, creating an idyllic vision of village life as harmonious and self-contained.
Although the apple vendor is differentiated in costume and stance from the seated trio, a rare allusion to class disparity in Renoir’s work, the loosely pyramidal arrangement that encloses all four figures draws them into a single, cohesive ensemble. The figures relate in a relaxed and natural manner, and the play of gazes among them further unifies the grouping. Both the apples and the children suggest the fruitfulness of rural France, yet there is no reference to the communal work of the apple harvest, which featured prominently in Pissarro’s contemporary imagery. “Pissarro’s concerns were with the role of labor within an integrated rural society, Renoir’s with the country as site for easy relations and healthy occupations,” John House has written (op., cit., 2012, pp. 253-254).
This sense of gentle, light-hearted ease is reflected in the exquisitely soft manner of painting that Renoir has employed in the present canvas. The brushwork is free and loose throughout, integrating the figures into the landscape; white highlights suggest the generalized effect of dappled sunlight, while the child’s pink dress provides a burst of warmth against the cooling blues and greens that dominate the composition. This approach–“like Fragonard, but not so good,” Renoir modestly told Durand-Ruel–represented a sea-change after the controversial, Ingresque manner of Les grandes baigneuses (1887) and ushered in a decade of mounting prosperity and long-awaited fame for the artist, who was then nearing fifty. “I’m in demand again on the market and I worked a lot in the spring,” he wrote to his friend and patron Paul Bérard in late 1889, just a few months before he painted La marchande des pommes. “If nothing happens to disturb my work, it will go like clockwork” (quoted in B.E. White, Renoir: His Life, Art, and Letters, New York, 1984, p. 189).