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.
Painted in 1897, Confidence captures a couple in a private moment of conversation, the woman's lips slightly parted as she leans in to speak, the man's head lowered in a posture of concentration. The intimacy of the scene is emphasized by the extremely close vantage point, with both heads abruptly cropped by the edges of the canvas. Renoir's focus is on the figures' overlapping profiles, which interlock like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The dialogue between their forms is heightened by the light that enters from the direction of the viewer, reflecting off the side of the man's face while casting the woman's features into shadow. At the same time, the scene is unified by the warm, restrained palette of cream, russet, and dark brown. The bow at the nape of the woman's neck provides a rosy pink accent, the color of which is echoed in the ruddy blush on the man's cheek. The background is rendered principally in a rich, chocolate brown, with a narrow band of a silky, cream-colored curtain visible at the left. Renoir thus provides just enough descriptive detail to place the scene in a bourgeois domestic interior, but not enough to distract from the immediacy of the central exchange.
After abandoning scenes of modern life around 1883 to focus on timeless depictions of l'éternel féminin, Renoir had returned to contemporary subjects in earnest in the early 1890s. Over the course of this decade, his paintings of fashionably dressed women--often in pairs, either talking, reading, or playing the piano--found an exceptionally strong market and contributed to his mounting fame and commercial success (fig.1). Unlike his genre paintings of the 1870s, which are principally set in the bustling public spaces of Paris and its suburbs (the cafés, boulevards, parks, theaters, and dance halls), these later modern costume pieces most often depict their sitters against broadly brushed, indeterminate backgrounds or safely ensconced in comfortable domestic interiors. Moreover, whereas the interaction of men and women in the public sphere had been a key theme in Renoir's earlier work (witness, for example, the flirtatious exchanges and unfolding romantic possibilities that pervade Au Moulin de la Galette, 1876, and Le Déjeuner des canotiers, 1880), his paintings from the 1890s depict an almost exclusively female realm, with men relegated to the background or sides of the image, or more often, omitted entirely. Barbara Ehrlich White has written, "Gone are the romance and flirtation of Renoir's bachelor years; now he celebrates the stability and comfort of middle-class life" (Renoir: His Life, Art, and Letters, New York, 1984, p. 208).
Within this context, Confidence stands out as exceptional. Its domestic setting clearly marks it as a work of the 1890s, as does the physiognomy of the female figure, who is softer and more idealized than the naturalistic grisettes, or young working women, whom Renoir had favored in his earlier years. Moreover, the broken, Impressionist brushwork of the 1870s has been replaced here by the solid modeling and clearly defined silhouettes that characterize Renoir's mature work. Yet this is the only oil painting recorded in Dauberville's catalogue raisonné for the 1890s that takes as its subject a close encounter between a man and woman. Although the picture does not have the same overtly amorous and provocative overtones as the series of contemporary courtship scenes that Renoir had painted in the 1870s (most notably, La Promenade of 1870 and Les Amoureux and La Confidence of 1875: Dauberville, nos. 257, 264, and 266), the physical proximity of the two figures and the intimate cropping of the scene lends the canvas a romantic frisson that is unusual in Renoir's work at this time and leaves the viewer wondering about the exact nature of the couple's relationship.
The closest comparables for the present scene are in fact a series of paintings that Renoir made in the mid- to late 1870s that depict couples cheek-to-cheek (or nearly so), reading, talking, or attending the theater together (Dauberville, nos. 259-262, 271, 273-276; figs. 2-3). With their radically restricted spatial parameters, these paintings all give the impression of having been taken from a larger scene, like a flash of modern life glimpsed en passant. John House has written, "Characteristically, Renoir set up the scenario without indicating the precise relationships between the figures or how they might evolve... What we see opens out a set of possibilities; by denying us the resolution of these potential stories, Renoir highlighted the nature of everyday experience in the modern city, where the passerby witnesses many interchanges and meetings without gaining access to their significance or their outcome" (Renoir in the Barnes Foundation, New Haven, 2012, p. 89). In the paintings from the 1870s, it tends to be the man who plays the more active role in the scene, while the woman is presented as the passive recipient of his overtures or as an object of display. In the present painting, by contrast, the female figure clearly dominates the interaction, her torso extending the full breadth of the foreground as she leans forward to whisper in the ear of her silent companion.
Although the identity of the woman in the present painting remains unknown, the male figure is recognizable as the composer Claude Terrasse (1867-1923), the brother-in-law of Pierre Bonnard and a well-known figure in avant-garde artistic circles. Terrasse is best known for the music that he composed for theater, most notably for the premiere of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi in 1896. He also published a musical grammar for children, Petit Solfège illustré, with illustrations by Bonnard. Renoir painted a portrait of Terrasse in 1895 (Dauberville, no. 2355; fig. 4), which draws attention to his strikingly full hair and beard: "His red thatch was a mass of curls," Annette Vaillant has written. "His beard revealed an extraordinarily red mouth, avid for all sorts of pleasures, and behind his pince-nez twinkled two endearing forget-me-not blue eyes" (Bonnard, New York, 1966, p. 48). Terrasse also appears with his wife, Bonnard's sister Andrée, and their children in numerous scenes by the Nabi painter, including the monumental L'Après-midi bourgeoise of 1900 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris).
The present painting was once in the collection of the legendary American film actress Greta Garbo, who acquired it from the New York dealer Sam Salz during the Second World War. Garbo owned two other major paintings by Renoir (Enfant assis en robe bleue, 1889, and Gabrielle et Coco lisant, 1906), as well as important works by Bonnard, Rouault, Kandinsky, and Jawlensky.
(fig. 1) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Deux jeunes filles assises, circa 1892. Philadelphia Museum of Art. BARCODE: 28855095
(fig. 2) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dans la loge, circa 1874. Private collection. BARCODE: 28855118
(fig. 3) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La conversation (Causerie), 1879. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. BARCODE: 28855101
(fig. 4) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Portrait de Claude Terrasse, circa 1895. Private collection. BARCODE: 28855125