This work will be included in the critical catalogue of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's paintings being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute.
This work will be included in volume II or the following volumes of the catalogue raisonné of paintings, pastels, drawings and watercolors of Renoir being prepared by Guy-Patrice et Michel Dauberville at the Editions Bernheim-Jeune.
Still life painting occupied a prominent position in Renoir's practice from the early 1880s onwards and the elaborate Vase de fleurs of 1881 stands amongst his most impressive floral compositions. Renoir is frequently remembered as a painter of the female figure but flowers, with their endless nuances of hue and form, exerted an equal fascination for him. Although he recommended to Manet's niece Julie to paint still life 'in order to teach yourself to paint quickly' (quoted in J. Manet, Journal, 1893-1899, Paris, no date, p. 190), the numerous and often highly ambitious works that Renoir executed in this genre over the course of his career attest to his sustained interest in still life as an end in itself. Indeed, it was in his still life compositions that Renoir pursued some of his most searching investigations of the effects of light and colour on objects and surfaces.
Vase de fleurs is a notable example of Renoir's achievement in still life, with a profuse array of vibrant blooms as luxuriant in its subject as the interiors in which he hoped it would hang. This selection of cosmos and peony flowers offered Renoir a richly saturated range of different but closely related hues with which to build a harmonious arrangement of colour. It is an image at once subtle and compelling; distinguished by a simple composition; a lucid, carefully balanced palette and a warm luminosity. Although the flowers are captured in the diffuse light of the studio, Vase de fleurs seems to express Renoir's excitement at the variety and abundance of nature, to which he bowed to above all things, stating, 'An artist, under pain of oblivion, must have confidence in himself and listen only to his real master: Nature' (quoted in J. Renoir, Renoir, My Father, translated by R. & D. Weaver, London, 1962, p. 217). Renoir's artistic concern with direct observations from life and his devotion to the nuances of light were brought to such traditional themes as the still life, in which he sought to convey the inner rhythm of all living things. The lush abundance of flowers in the present work, for instance, appears to reverberate with life, while the balance, order and harmony he brings to such arrangements overrides any requirement for symbolic meaning. Renoir's love of colour and his delight in the sensuous qualities of oil paint complement the pleasures he found in nature, and form the core of his art, 'What seems to me most significant about our movement,' he explained of Impressionism, 'is that we have freed painting from the importance of the subject. I am at liberty to paint flowers and call them flowers, without their needing to tell a story' (quoted in P. Mitchell, European Flower Painters, London, 1973, pp. 211-12).
The blue and orange globular vase in this painting was a favourite of Renoir's for his floral studies, and he used it in several still life paintings from as early as 1878. The present Vase de fleurs is differentiated from his other works however, in the frontal placement of the vase's glazed portrait medallion. This particular vase also features prominently in two of the five oil paintings he produced on the theme of two young girls at the piano in 1892, a series of works instigated by a commission for the Musée du Luxembourg. At no other point in Renoir's career did he work with such concentration on one figure arrangement, and of the two versions that feature this vase, one was initially given to his fellow Impressionist Caillebotte, and the other is now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Whilst flowers afforded Renoir the potential to explore decorative and formal possibilities, they also provided the painter with a reliable source of income. Like his contemporary Monet, Renoir increasingly relied upon the appeal of these floral compositions into the late 1870s and early 1880s to remedy his personal financial difficulties. By the time Vase de fleurs was painted, Renoir was beginning to experience a reversal in his fortunes. Several pictures had been accepted into the Salon in 1879 through the support of his influential friend Madame Charpentier, enabling the painter to secure new buyers and the approval of the important art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, after years of struggling against hostility from academic circles, critics and the public at large. This new pecuniary stability presented Renoir with the freedom to travel extensively. He had never ventured far from home before, but in 1881 he embarked on a Grand Tour, following the footsteps of Delacroix to Algeria in February to April and to Italy in the autumn, where he was enchanted by the frescoes of Raphael and the ruins of Pompeii. The Salon exhibitions had resulted in numerous portrait commissions for Renoir, yet he often found his sitters demanding and the work-time consuming, and found respite in his travels and in subjects like floral still lifes.
Although Renoir was at the height of his creative powers, the pressure of his new-found success coincided with an increasing sense self-doubt about the direction of his art. His decision to exhibit at the Salon, rather than with the independent group shows of the Impressionists, represented a developing schism within the movement, splitting them into two camps -- with the 'Pure' Impressionists (Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley and Morisot) on one side, and the Realists (Degas and his many followers) on the other. Distancing himself from his colleagues, Renoir hoped to avoid the accusation that he was a revolutionary, which he felt alienated potential patrons. This move was partially driven by his financial need, but the painter was also beginning to feel disillusioned with Impressionism and entered into a crisis that he likened to drowning. Through the influence of Monet, he had long dedicated himself to studying light out-of-doors, but in 1881 he acknowledged his doubts about the effects of such strong atmospheric light on his style, later remarking to Vollard, 'Out-of-doors, there is a greater variety of light than in the studio, where the light is always the same. But that is just the trouble; one is carried away by the light, and besides, one can't see what one is doing' (quoted in F. Fosca, Renoir, London, 1961, p. 151). Renoir was all too aware that changing his style would incur the risk of ridicule and upset existing patrons, but he embarked on a series of technical experiments that he felt were necessary to progress artistically. The painter had largely abandoned the clear delineation of forms and traditional methods of tonal modelling for juxtapositions of colour patches by the mid 1870s, but the expectations associated with his portrait commissions in the 1880s, and his observation of the difference in his approach when working in the studio, prompted him to return to a more carefully defined method of representation.
Working in the studio allowed Renoir to carefully compose his pictures rather that trying to rapidly capture fleeting observations from nature, and he began to develop away from indistinct focus to more tangible, well-defined form. An early indication of this change can be seen in Vase de fleurs, in which the free and broken brushwork of many of his earlier works is refined, with the forms of the flowers given greater clarity by the contrast to what lies beyond them. As part of his constant search for painterly advancement, paintings like Vase de fleurs provided Renoir with the means to further experiment with technique without the judgment of a live sitter, 'Painting flowers', he explained, 'is a form of mental relaxation...When I am painting flowers I can experiment boldly with tones and values without worrying about destroying the whole painting' (quoted in G. Rivière, Renoir et ses amis, Paris, 1921, p. 81). The labour of Renoir's efforts are clearly rewarded by the great pleasure he found in his subject, with Vase de fleurs forming a lustrous example of his unrivalled talent as a flower painter.