This work 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.
Renoir painted Nu couché, vu de dos, sur fond ocre during his important foray into the bathers theme during the 1880s. This interest culminated in the monumental Baigneuses of 1887 (Philadelphia Museum of Art), cast in Renoir's fully Ingresque style, in which he began to work in 1885. Drawing began to play an important role during this period in the artist's working methods, and for Baigneuses he completed numerous preparatory drawings in order to achieve a more linear style. The figures in that painting have very clear outlines, contrasting sharply with the more fluid, although still representational, background. Nu couché, vu de dos, sur fond ocre shows a similar separation of figure and ground, although the sense of space is less refined and, in fact, ambiguous.
The subject of bathers has a long lineage, and Renoir had become deeply interested in tradition and artistic precedents. Renoir's early training as a painter on ceramics had steeped him in the eighteenth-century idiom of fêtes galantes with its playful language of pastoral escapades. From his own century, the poised classicism of Ingres exerted a powerful draw. The pose in the present work recalls one of Ingres's most celebrated compositions, the Grande odalisque of 1814 (Musée de Louvre). The sensual realism Courbet was also a strong influence. In an interview late in life, Henri Matisse recalled a conversation he had with Renoir. When Matisse asked the older artist why he kept reworking a scene of bathers, Renoir replied that there was not enough Courbet in it. Renoir, Matisse maintained, was searching for the same unity of the painted surface that he found and loved in Courbet (in A. de Butler, ed., Ecrits, entretiens et lettres sur l'art, Paris, 2002, p. 218).
Renoir also followed Cézanne's work on the bathers theme. In fact, Renoir worked with Cézanne in 1882 at L'Estaque and then in 1885 at La Roche-Guyon. In 1885, Cézanne made Renoir a gift of his painting Un tournant dans la route à La Roche-Guyon, 1885 (Rewald no. 539; Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton). Renoir eventually acquired four paintings and two watercolors by his colleague. He may also have worked with Cézanne at Jas de Bouffan in 1895. While they quarreled later that year, Renoir did speak favorably of Cézanne's recent work shown at Vollard's gallery: "There is something similar to the things from Pompeii, so rough and admirable" (Renoir, exh. cat., Haywood Gallery, London, 1985, p. 307). He was apparently discussing Cézanne's recent bathers. While Renoir's bathers possess a sweetness and lyricism that Cézanne's do not, he was certainly aware of Cézanne's concerns with the depiction of volume in his subjects. Renoir also admired Cézanne's use of color, marveling at how every touch of color on a Cézanne canvas was wholly successful.
Degas too is also famous for his bathers. They are, however, often distinctly modern women, depicted in interior spaces. Degas was very interested in showing his nudes in unusual poses, often viewed from the rear--dressing, stepping into or out of the bath, or simply stretching. Unlike Ingres, Courbet, Cézanne, and Degas, however, Renoir did not depict any abrupt or novel figural movements in Nu couché, vu de dos, sur fond ocre, lending his bather a timelessly tranquil air, seemingly detached from ordinary reality.