This painting will be included in the forthcoming catalogue critique of Pierre-Auguste Renoir being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute, as established from the archives of François Daulte, Durand-Ruel, Venturi, Vollard and Wildenstein.
This painting will be included in volume III or subsequent volumes of the Catalogue raisonné des tableaux, pastels, dessins et aquarelles de Renoir being prepared by Guy-Patrice and Michel Dauberville published by Bernheim-Jeune.
This painting has been requested for loan for the exhibition Late Renoir June-September 2010, to be held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Renoir sent Femme nue couchée to the 1905 Salon d'Automne, where it was the most notable of his nine contributions that year. He had been accorded the honor of a small retrospective at the previous Salon, in which he showed 34 paintings. In the 1905 exhibition there were special rooms devoted to the works of Ingres and Manet, two progenitors of the modernist spirit in painting. The most talked about section, however, was salle V, where visitors gathered to view the most recent paintings of Matisse and his colleagues, which had stirred up a frenzy of controversy--the reviewer Vauxcelles called these artists les fauves, the "wild beasts." Amid this extraordinary mix of past and present, Renoir took his distinguished place within the continuity between the century previous and the new one just underway. Renoir was one of the few surviving and active grand old men of the Impressionist movement, but his work was still evolving, and was now remarkable for its singular and genuinely joyous celebration of sensuality, styled by the hand of a classicist who was carrying on a dialogue with his old master predecessors. This was the manner that would continue to bear fruit during the final two decades of Renoir's life, and serve as a beacon to a younger generation of modern painters, Matisse and Picasso foremost among them, during the neo-classical 1920s.
Dual strands of subject matter had run through Renoir's work during the late 1880s and 1890s. The artist concentrated mainly on scenes of domestic harmony, reflecting his deepening relationship with Aline Charigot, who had been his companion for more than a decade when he married her in 1890, and also his profound experience of fatherhood and family life--Pierre, the first of his three sons, was born in 1885, and Jean arrived in 1894. As a more formal theme during this period, he preferred to paint bathers. Like a latter-day Fragonard, Renoir placed lovely girls in outdoor Arcadian settings, singly or in groups, extolling the beauty of the female form amid the abundance and fertility of verdant nature.
Femme nue couchée, painted in 1903, marked Renoir's transference of the nude bather into an indoor, studio environment; and as such, with its recumbent pose and languorous ambience, this treatment also conjures up the Orientalist atmosphere of the harem odalisque. Renoir had featured this subject early in his career--in 1870 he painted in his Paris studio a reclining girl decked out in lavish North African attire, Femme d'Alger (Odalisque) (Daulte, no. 48; fig. 1). Renoir traveled twice to Algeria, in 1881 and 1882, and memories of these experiences continued to play out in later years, just as they would for Matisse years after that artist's stay in Morocco. The Orientalist conventions of tastefully exposed flesh, which might be contrasted with extravagant costuming and luxurious interiors, all evoking a beguiling mood of idleness and reverie, would play an increasingly important role in Renoir's late paintings of the female figure.
In 1893 Renoir painted Nu allongé (The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania), which set the stage for this conception of the reclining nude, composed within a horizontal format. The artist reprised this subject in La Source. Nu allongé, painted in 1902 (fig. 2), a year before he worked on the present picture. As Marthe Lucy has pointed out (in exh. cat., op. cit., 2009, p. 227), Renoir was likely influenced by the stone reliefs that Jean Goujon carved for the base of the Fontaine des Innocents, Paris, 1549, which were later installed in the Louvre. Renoir intended in La Source that the supple curves of the nymph-like girl project her physicality as a generative life force in symbiosis with nature: the eternal feminine is la source.
While he was painting Femme nue couchée, Renoir drew upon a long line of distinguished antecedents by earlier artists. From the previous century there were Manet's famous Olympia, 1863 (Wildenstein, no. 69; Musée d'Orsay, Paris) and Ingres' reclining harem girls, such as L'Odalisque à l'esclave, 1839-1840 (fig. 3). Titian's Vénus d'Urbino, 1538, in the Uffizi, Florence, had inspired Manet's nude, together with Goya's La maja desnuda, circa 1800 (Prado, Madrid). Indeed, it was a visit to the Prado in 1892, in the company of his friend the publisher Paul Gallimard, that Renoir finally had the opportunity to view many works by Goya and Velázquez firsthand, and to study a painting which would come to hold particular interest for him, Titian's Venus with Cupid and an Organist, 1545-1550 (fig. 4). He later commented to Ambroise Vollard, "Ah, Titian has everything. First, mystery; then depth... In the Venus and the Organist the limpid quality of that glowing flesh is fairly alive. You actually feel the joy he had in painting it... I have really lived a second life through the pleasure I have had from the work of the masters" (quoted in A.Vollard, Renoir: An Intimate Record, New York, 1925, p. 62).
Renoir strove in Femme nue couchée to emulate the painterly qualities of Titian's Venuses. The flesh of the young woman in the present painting has a delectably glowing and milky appearance, replete with the perceptible sheen that emanates from healthy and youthful skin. One is reminded here of the reasons why oil paints evolved during the early Renaissance to become the preferred medium of many artists by the time of Titian and Tintoretto--no other medium permitted them to paint the skin of their human subjects in such subtle tones, capturing the translucent layering of tints and the radiant blush of living flesh.
Renoir's particular success in this picture owes much to the earthy and winsome appeal of his model. Devotees of this artist's work will instantly recognize that the young woman in this painting is Fernande-Gabrielle Renard (see previous page), the best-known of the models who appeared in Renoir's later paintings--she features in about two hundred of his works, far more than any other. Known as Gabrielle, or simply called "Ga," she was born in 1878 in the town of Essoyes, which was also the birthplace of Renoir's wife Aline. Gabrielle's parents were the widow Marie Céleste Prélat, a grocer, and Charles Paul Renard, an unmarried wine-grower. Renard officially declared his paternity, and married the girl's mother four years later; the couple subsequently also had a son. In May 1895 Marie Céleste's son from her first marriage wedded Marie Victorine Maire, who was related to Aline, thus establishing a relationship between the Renoir and Renard families. To help care for the infant Jean, Aline asked Gabrielle, whom she could now consider a distant cousin, to join the Renoir household in the chateau des Brouillards, at 13, rue Girardon, Paris.
Gabrielle was a practical and hard-working country girl. Jean Renoir later recalled that "at ten she could tell the year of any wine, catch trout with her hands without getting caught by the game warden, tend the cows, help bleed the pigs, gather greens for rabbits and collect manure dropped by the horses as they came in from the fields--a treasure which everyone coveted" (Renoir, My Father, New York, 1958, p. 264). High-spirited and independent, but deeply loyal to her adoptive family, Gabrielle became an indispensable helpmate in the daily life of the Renoir home, especially after the artist purchased a house in Essoyes, where Gabrielle was completely in her element. She was devoted to Jean, her chief responsibility, and became his surrogate mother. Gabrielle's warmly glowing presence enlivens many of the artist's most charming domestic scenes during this period--she crouches in the foreground, with the toddler Jean in her protective grasp, in La famille d'artiste, 1896 (Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania).
Several years later Renoir began to paint Gabrielle in the nude; she appears half-length with her breasts exposed in Gabrielle à la rose (La Sicilienne), circa 1899 (exh. cat., op. cit., 2009, no. 23). Renoir had rented a summer house in Magagnosc, near Grasse. As Jean Renoir recalled, "It was in that house that Gabrielle began posing in the nude for the first time. La Boulangère [Marie Dupuis, a servant who joined the Renoir household in 1899] had a cold, and Renoir had tried in vain to get a model from Grasse. It was the rose gathering season for the perfume industry, and all the young people in the vicinity were employed. At the same time, it is possible that the prospect of appearing naked in front of a gentleman frightened many of the girls... My mother finally had the idea of getting Gabrielle as a substitute. She had just turned twenty and she was in the flower of youth. She was accustomed to seeing her friends pose in the nude that she took the suggestion as a matter of course. She had already appeared in countless pictures, but always fully clothed and always with me" (op. cit., pp. 365-366).
Much of the charm of Renoir's nudes derives from the fact that the young women--or even girls in their late teens--are pretty, in the bloom of health and full of high spirits. They are delectably full-figured in a natural way; the artist preferred the "girl next-door" as his model. Ambroise Vollard commented that "If Renoir used his servants for his models, it was simply because he disliked nothing so much as the 'professional.' And after he had got a model 'well-worked into his brushes,' was a great annoyance for him to change" (Renoir, An Intimate Record, New York, 1925, p. 83).
Renoir placed his easel very close to edge of the divan with cushions on which he posed Gabrielle. There is minimal intervening space in the foreground between the viewer and the model, and the eye senses that she is virtually life-size, all contributing to the uncanny sense of presence that Gabrielle projects from within the confines of the composition. She has drawn up her legs slightly, creating a curving S-shape that acts in counterpoint with the relatively flat and rectilinear space around her. The subtle twists in the positioning of her legs and arms required Renoir to foreshorten her thighs and left upper arm, effects he brought off with masterly skill. Taking his cue from time-honored conventions for the depiction of the nude, Renoir allowed Gabrielle to cover her sex with a tastefully positioned piece of drapery, a measure which also made the picture suitably decorous for display in a public salon. The pink rose that Gabrielle wears in her hair accentuates her sultry allure; she often appears in Renoir's pictures wearing one, as it contrasts seductively with her dark hair and eyes, lending her appearance a decidedly Mediterranean, even Spanish air.
Femme nue couchée was favorably received at the 1905 Salon d'Automne. The painter Maurice Denis, an erstwhile member of the Nabi group, wrote: "Renoir, who is no longer remotely an Impressionist, triumphs here with his astonishing latest manner, with robust, abundant nudes like the Raphaels of the Fire in the Borgo and the Farnesina: note how his knowledge of tonal gradations and modeling has in no way compromised his freshness and simplicity" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1985, p. 271). The success of Femme nue couchée encouraged Renoir to paint two subsequent related versions, before he parted with the picture in 1907, when he sold it to the dealer Durand-Ruel. Both successors are of comparable size. The artist completed Femme nue couchée (Gabrielle) circa 1906 (fig. 5); in this picture he gave more diaphanous treatment to the patterned drapery in the background. The second picture that stemmed from the present work is Nu sur les coussins (Grand nu), painted in 1907 (fig. 6). Here Renoir employed a different model, a red-haired girl, and imparted to the picture a rosier tonality overall. It is nonetheless arguable that the present Femme nue couchée displays a greater measure than either later picture of the "freshness and simplicity" of which Denis wrote.
Renoir's interest in the horizontal format for his nude figure paintings during this period may have been partly the consequence of a painful physical limitation. While riding his bicycle in Essoyes during a rainy day in early September 1897, Renoir skidded and fell, breaking his right arm. Although the bone healed, he began to experience stabbing pains in his right shoulder, marking the onset of muscular rheumatism and arthritis which would eventually cripple him. Unable to raise his right arm above a certain level, he preferred to paint on horizontal canvases when working in large dimensions, until a system of trestles was devised for his chair that enabled him to resume working on tall, vertical compositions.
During the summer of 1904 Renoir suffered a spell of paralysis, which compelled him to travel to a spa for relief. He was again able to paint that fall, but he knew from then on that he would have to overcome seemingly insurmountable physical impairments in order to paint, the only activity by which he could endure and transcend these debilitating circumstances. He nevertheless painted some of his most beautiful nudes during the early years of the century, before their voluptuousness ballooned into the exaggerated volumes that characterize his very late figure paintings. Barbara E. White has written: "Like figures painted by the aged Titian or Rubens, these nudes capture a powerful sexuality, a metaphor of life itself in the contrast between the artist's physical deterioration and his figures' increased sensuality. He compensated for his own sickness, emaciation, and paralysis by brilliantly expressing health, corpulence and vitality. His powerfully optimistic nudes express his resilient defiance" (op. cit., p. 229).
(fig A) Gabrielle Renard posing in the artist's studio in Cagnes, circa 1911. Photo courtesy University of California, Los Angeles, Art Library Special Collection, Jean Renoir.
(fig. 1) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Femme d'Alger (Odalisque), 1870. National Gallery of Art, Chester Dale Collection, Washington, DC.
(fig. 2) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Source. Nu allongé, 1902. Private collection.
(fig. 3) J.-A.-D. Ingres, Odalisque à l'esclave, 1839-1840. Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
(fig. 4) Titian, Venus with Cupid and an Organist, 1545-1550. Prado, Madrid.
(fig. 5) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Femme nue couchée (Gabrielle), c. 1906. Musée d'Orangerie, Collection J. Walter et Paul Guillaume, Paris.
(fig. 6) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Nu sur les coussins (Grand nu), 1907. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.