This work 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.
La jeune fille au cygne is a sensitively characterized portrait of a self-possessed, chestnut-haired ingénue, poised on the very brink of womanhood. Dressed entirely in white, she is seated on a low divan; she leans forward slightly, one hand holding a letter in her lap, the other hand steadying her pose. Behind her, brushed in luminous golden hues, is a decorative paneled screen, whose only discernable motif is an elegant crane or heron (not a swan, as often stated) at the right. Its plumage is white like the model’s dress, equating the beauty and grace of the slender-necked bird with that of the young woman. Rejecting the Impressionist technique of fusing the figure with her surroundings, Renoir has distinctly demarcated the girl’s solidly modeled and crisply contoured form against the broadly brushed ground. Her simple, pyramidal shape lends the composition a monumental, timeless air, which is underscored by her distant gaze. “In technique, composition, and subject matter,” John House has explained, “Renoir was deliberately moving away from any suggestion of the fleeting or the contingent, away from the Impressionist preoccupation with the captured instant, towards a more timeless vision of woman” (Renoir, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1985, p. 242).
Renoir painted this ravishing canvas in 1886, while deeply engaged in a process of experimentation and resolution, during which he wholly re-ordered his goals as a painter. He had first started to explore alternatives to Impressionism as early as 1879, a time of disillusionment in the Impressionist group as a whole. The strategy of independently organized, cooperative exhibitions had brought little real success, and even such dedicated supporters as Zola were encouraging the Impressionists to go beyond the informal, freely brushed sketch and to produce more resolved pictorial statements. Seeking inspiration in the art of the past, Renoir began to study the work of Ingres and immersed himself in Cennino Cennini’s Il Libro dell’Arte, a fifteenth-century Florentine manual of painting technique. The results of this research are evident in Renoir’s most ambitious canvas of 1880, Le déjeuner des canotiers, in which the multi-figure composition is carefully structured and the individual forms clearly defined (Dauberville, no. 224; Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.).
In the winter of 1881-1882, Renoir undertook a three-month voyage to Italy, which confirmed to him that he was on the right course. In Rome and Naples, he admired “the grandeur and simplicity of the ancient painters” and began to seek “broad harmonies without any longer preoccupying myself with the small details which dim the sunlight,” as he later recalled (quoted in ibid., p. 220). Renoir came to see this journey as the watershed moment in his career. “Perhaps I’ve been painting the same three or four paintings throughout my life,” he mused in old age. “What is certain that since my trip to Italy, I’ve been working away at the same problems” (quoted in ibid., p. 15).
Within a few months of his return to Paris, Renoir became deeply concerned with aesthetic issues arising from the ideas that he had absorbed during his tour. “A sort of break came in my work about 1883,” he later told Ambroise Vollard. “I had wrung Impressionism dry, and I finally came to the conclusion that I knew neither how to paint nor draw” (quoted in J. House, Renoir in the Barnes Foundation, New Haven, 2012, p. 113). For the next three years, he worked doggedly to consolidate his new, classicizing conception of the figure. He traveled very little and exhibited only occasionally, opting not to submit to the Salon between 1883 and 1890, nor to the final Impressionist group show in 1886. He abandoned scenes of modern life and accepted only a very few portrait commissions, focusing instead on a sequence of major figure compositions. “Everything betrays accomplished research and the brilliant effort to create something new,” raved Octave Mirbeau when the culminating work of this period, Les grandes baigneuses, was exhibited at Georges Petit in the spring of 1887 (Dauberville, no. 1292; Philadelphia Museum of Art; quoted in A. Distel, Renoir, New York, 2010, p. 249).
La jeune fille au cygne is one of the largest and most exquisitely worked canvases that Renoir painted in 1886, the year that he brought his “new manner” (as Pissarro called it, although not altogether sympathetically) to its very peak. Unlike Les grandes baigneuses, which is wholly timeless in its motif of five frolicking nymphs, the present painting retains certain allusions to modern life, the quintessential Impressionist theme. The young woman wears a fashionable dress with a ruffled bodice; the Asian-inspired screen in the background suggests the vogue for japonisme that held sway in Paris at the time; and the letter that the model holds (but does not read) may suggest the existence of a male suitor. In every other way, however, the painting represents the veritable antithesis of Impressionism, with its seeming spontaneity and emphasis on the specific, fleeting moment. “One sees Ingres in the hard edges and unblemished skin,” House has written. “Raphael is invoked in the picture’s stable geometry” (op. cit., 2012, p. 113).
Particularly noteworthy is the bravura contrast of palette and handling that Renoir has skillfully used to demarcate figure from ground. The young girl’s skin is porcelain-smooth, painted with fine, barely visible strokes that suggest a slight sheen; her dress is rendered with a more active, variegated touch, while the background is laid down most vigorously of all, in a flat, nearly abstract patchwork of richly brushed color. The cool tones in the girl’s dress–pure white accented with touches of blue, lavender, and gray to produce the effect of satin–stand out in striking juxtaposition against the hot yellow and orange hues of the background, which reach a peak of intensity in the dash of red that crowns the bird’s head. Unifying these various components is the extraordinary radiance of the entire scene, which is not the patchy, variegated light of Impressionism but a generalized luminosity that comes from Renoir’s almost complete elimination of black from the palette. Although the painting is set in an interior, the ambient glow surrounding the young girl is so strong that one is tempted to think that she is seated out of doors.
The identity of the nubile young woman who posed for this canvas remains unknown. “This charming model, with her almond-shaped eyes and her strongly drawn eyebrows, her slightly upturned nose and full ruby lips, typifies the sort of female beauty Renoir was especially fond of,” François Daulte has written (op. cit., 1971, p. 79). Whereas society portraiture required a certain physiognomic specificity, paintings such as Jeune fille au cygne–generalized celebrations of l’éternel feminin, rather than genuine likenesses of a particular sitter–imposed no such constraints. Renoir never hesitated, therefore, to alter his models’ appearance to conform to an ideal type, with rounded features, pearly pink skin, a snub nose, bee-stung lips, and wide eyes. He explained to the painter Albert André, “How difficult it is in a picture to find the exact point at which to stop copying nature. The painting must not smell too strongly of the model, but at the same time, you must get the feeling of nature. A painting is not a verbatim record... The most important thing is for it to remain painting” (quoted in Renoir in the 20th Century, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2009, p. 67).
Nevertheless, it is tempting to speculate about which of Renoir’s attractive young models may have provided the initial inspiration for the present painting. With her low, straight brows and side-swept, chestnut-colored bangs, the figure bears no small resemblance to Suzanne Valadon, who sat for Renoir repeatedly between 1883 and 1887. Valadon served as the model for both La danse à la ville and La danse à Bougival of 1882-1883 (Dauberville, nos. 1000-1001; Musée d’Orsay, Paris, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Renoir’s last major statements on the theme of urban and suburban recreation, and for one of the two principal bathers in Les grandes baigneuses. She very likely posed as well for La femme à l’éventail and La Natte, both closely contemporary with the present painting (Dauberville, nos. 1148 and 1200; Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, and Museum Langmatt, Baden). “In Suzanne Valadon Renoir encountered a model of quite exceptional beauty, whose endless eyebrows, flawless skin, and demure smile had already recommended her to a host of painters,” Colin Bailey has written (Renoir’s Portraits: Impressions of an Age, exh. cat., National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1997, p. 200).
La jeune fille au cygne belonged to several discerning collectors during its earliest history, including the critic Adolphe Tavernier and the intellectually, socially, and politically progressive salon hostess Marquise Marie Arconati Visconti. Most notable among the painting’s owners, however, was Gustave Fayet, a prosperous wine grower from Béziers and energetic champion of Post-Impressionism and early modernism. With his southerner’s love of brilliant effects, Fayet was certainly drawn to the painting’s radiant golden tones: “He is possessed by color; it intoxicates him, it is his delight,” the poet André Suarès wrote. Yet it may also have been the painting’s revelation of Renoir as an artist who dared to break with a movement that Fayet found compelling. “Fayet belonged to a remarkable generation of independent patrons in the south of France, whose progressive outlook put them streets ahead of the Parisian art establishment,” Hilary Spurling has written. “He was a large man in every sense, tall, forceful and expansive–a visionary” (The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse, The Early Years, 1869-1908, New York, 1999, pp. 315 and 355).
FIG. A: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Les grandes baigneuses, 1887. Philadelphia Museum of Art. BARCODE: nyrphxtl
FIG. B: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Fillette au cerceau, 1885. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. BARCODE: nyrphxtn
FIG. C: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Madame Clapisson, 1883. Art Institute of Chicago. BARCODE: nyrphxtm
FIG. D: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La femme à l’éventail, 1886. Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. BARCODE: nyrphxto
FIG. E: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Natte, 1887. Museum Langmatt, Baden. BARCODE: nyrphxtk