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.
This work will be included in the second supplement to the Catalogue raisonné des tableaux, pastels, dessins et aquarelles de Renoir being prepared by Guy-Patrice and Floriane Dauberville, published by Bernheim-Jeune.
In a leafy garden beneath a cloudless sky, a trio of figures–their cheeks flushed from the warmth of midday, straw hats shielding their faces from the sun–partake of an al fresco luncheon, one of the great pleasures of summer. Two guests are seated in rattan chairs, their postures natural and relaxed, a dog at their side, while a third figure at the left serves tea. The setting for this spirited and convivial scene is the artist’s summer house at Essoyes, a rural village on the border of Champagne and Bourgogne where his wife Aline had been raised. The dark-haired woman wearing an apron is Gabrielle Renard, the family’s beloved governess and housekeeper, and Renoir’s principal muse during the opening decade of the twentieth century. According to François Daulte, the two figures seated at the table are the art critic Georges Rivière, a close friend of Renoir from his Impressionist days, and one of Rivière’s daughters–either Hélène, who would later marry Renoir’s nephew Edmond, or Renée, the future wife of Cézanne’s son Paul.
Although Renoir kept a rented apartment in Paris throughout his life, from the late 1880s onward he spent as much time as possible in the countryside, which became the site for his idealized pictorial vision of an earthly paradise. The artist probably made his first trip to Essoyes in September 1885, six months after the birth of his eldest son Pierre, and he returned frequently during the ensuing decade. “I’m playing peasant in Champagne in order to escape the expensive models of Paris,” he wrote to Eugène Manet and Berthe Morisot during a three-month sojourn in 1888. “I’m becoming more and more of a rustic” (quoted in Renoir, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1985, p. 253). In 1896, he purchased a house at Essoyes–the setting for the present painting–where for the rest of his life he spent summers and sometimes the autumn, re-locating to the south of France for the winter and spring.
“Essoyes, where my mother and Gabrielle were born, has remained more or less unspoiled,” Renoir’s middle son Jean, born in 1894, later wrote with great nostalgia. “There is no other place like it in the whole wide world. There I spent the best years of my childhood. My enchantment used to begin as soon as I got within ten miles of the village, when the train from Paris had passed the flat plain of Champagne and entered the hilly region covered with vineyards...
“My father felt well whenever he was at Essoyes; and as he covered his canvases with color, he would enjoy having us around as well as the villagers. When little girls came across Renoir in the fields they would whisper to each other, ‘There he is, daubing,’ so as not to disturb him. He would call to them, and they would approach slowly...[The villagers] said he was not at all like other people. He didn’t drink. He never talked politics. He wore old-fashioned cravats. But everyone liked him in spite of it” (Renoir, My Father, New York, 1958, pp. 319-321 and 325).
Summer for Renoir was a time for liberal hospitality as well as hard work, and Georges Rivière and his daughters (his wife had died young) were among the many friends who came frequently to visit the artist and his family at Essoyes. Renoir and Rivière had been all but inseparable during the late 1870s, as bachelors in Montmartre. In a painting that Renoir made of his studio in the rue Saint-Georges in 1876, Rivière is the central figure, holding up a paperback and leading a discussion among an informal gathering of friends and colleagues (Dauberville, no. 233). Rivière posed for one of the principal revelers in Le bal au Moulin de la Galette of 1877 (no. 211) and very likely for several other modern-life scenes of the same period (nos. 213, 235, 267, and 273, plus see no. 546 for a portrait). On the occasion of the Third Impressionist Exhibition, Rivière founded a short-lived journal called L’Impressionniste to promote the New Painting, authoring a four-part review that made him the leading critical presence of the show.
Renoir and Rivière drifted apart starting in 1880, as youthful companions often do. Rivière took a demanding post at the Ministry of Finance, which limited his leisure time; both he and Renoir started a family, and Rivière left Paris for a suburb near the Bois de Vincennes when his wife’s health began to suffer. The old friends re-united, however, in the late 1890s, when Pierre Renoir and the Rivière girls were teenagers and Jean Renoir was still a young boy. Two years after Renoir’s death, Rivière published Renoir et ses amis, the earliest biography of the artist and a testament to the enduring strength of their friendship.
“In 1897, after an interval of some twenty years, Georges Rivière came back into my father’s life,” Jean Renoir recalled. “Rivière brought his two daughters, Hélène and Renée, to see us, and they captivated us immediately. All three got into the habit of visiting us at Essoyes every summer. The two girls and my mother became close friends–to such an extent that she practically adopted them. The young men and girls in the village often came to our house. We would all go out together, along the banks of the river or through the woods. Sometimes the brake would be brought out, and my father would drive along with us. My mother would come with him, and M. Rivière, and perhaps some special guest, such as Vollard or my godfather, Georges Durand-Ruel, or the sculptor Maillol, and the young people would follow on their bicycles” (ibid., p. 332).
The memory of these genial summer days is vividly preserved in the present painting. Bright sunlight glints off the varied textures of clothing and tableware, and hot, heightened fields of pink and gold stand out against a ground of cooling greens and blues. The postures of the figures lend the scene an air of spontaneity and ease. Rivière sits with one arm slung over the back of the chair, his jacket falling open and his legs crossed jauntily; his daughter appears demure but attentive, and Gabrielle is poised in the very midst of pouring the tea. Even the dog, who pants lightly in the heat, is engaged in the proceedings, gazing up toward the table as if hoping for a tidbit.
Scenes of communal sociability like this one are rare in Renoir’s later oeuvre, and where they appear–for example, in Le Thé of 1911 (Dauberville, no. 4007; The Barnes Collection, Philadelphia)–the figures often show no sign of interaction, instead functioning primarily as decorative elements within the overall pictorial scheme. Here, by contrast, Renoir has depicted the three figures–all dear friends rather than hired models or paying patrons–as decidedly social actors, recalling the lively tableaux of outdoor dining that he painted at Chatou during his Impressionist years. In place of the rapid, broken touch of Impressionism, fluid strokes now unify the entire canvas and create a sense of visual hedonism–the sensual pleasures of painting likened to the indulgences of a summer day.