Jeanne Samary was one of the most celebrated actresses in Paris when she first sat for Renoir in 1877. Born into one of the most famous stage families in all of France, Jeanne had entered the Conservatoire in 1871 when she was just fourteen, winning the first prize for comedy in July 1875, which was followed swiftly by her stage debut with the Comédie- Française the following month as Dorinne in Molière's Tartuffe. She excelled at playing saucy, flirtatious serving girls and rose quickly through the ranks of the theatre, becoming a full member (sociétaire) of the Comédie-Française in January 1879, two-months shy of her twenty-second birthday. Although Renoir disliked the acting at the Comédie-Française and rarely attended performances there, he was quite fond of Samary, whose fame in her day rivalled that of Sarah Bernhardt. Indeed, Georges Rivière recalled that no portrait ever gave Renoir greater satisfaction than the ones he painted of Samary, and the artist himself described her in a letter to Théodore Duret as ‘la petite Samary, who delights women, but men even more’ (Renoir, quoted in Renoir’s Portraits: Impressions of an Age, exh. cat., National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1997, p. 155).
Between 1877 and 1880, Renoir depicted Samary in no fewer than eight oils and four pastels, more than any other single sitter, as well as using her as the model for the fashionable young woman in the top right corner of Le déjeuner des canotiers (Dauberville, no. 224), one of his most ambitious multi-figure genre paintings. The present pastel is noteworthy for its portrayal of Samary in semi-déshabillé, with one strap of her white chemise slipping off her shoulder to reveal the top of her right breast. Renoir's depiction of Samary in such an alluring manner may be a reference to the saucy soubrettes whom she most often portrayed on stage, or it may reflect the casual intimacy that characterised his friendship with the actress, who lived just a short distance from the artist’s studio. This is reinforced in Renoir’s use of pastel, a medium he rarely employed for his formal portrait commissions but rather reserved for depictions of close friends and family. François Daulte has explained, ‘If he frequently used that medium to depict those near and dear to him, it was because pastel, which combines colour with line, gave him the possibility of working rapidly to capture in all their vividness the rapid flash of intelligence and the fleeting show of emotion’ (Daulte, Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Watercolours, Pastels, and Drawings in Colour, London, 1959, p. 10). In the present work, the delicate treatment of Samary's pearly, iridescent skin contrasts with the bold, densely applied strokes of pastel that make up the background. The bright blue that frames the figure of Samary is echoed in the shadows on her skin and dress, and even more notably, in her distinctive, wide-eyed gaze.
The first owner of the present pastel was Tadamasa Hayashi, one of the earliest ambassadors of Japanese culture in France and the chief commissioner of the Japanese government to the Paris World's Fair of 1900. Hayashi arrived in Paris in 1878 to interpret for the art dealer and curator Kenzaburô Wakaï at that year's Exposition Universelle. In 1883, he opened a shop selling ukiyo-e prints and other traditional forms of Japanese art, which quickly became one of the most important places in Paris (along with Samuel Bing's gallery) to see such works. Hayashi met many of the Impressionists through his work as a dealer and became particularly close to Monet, who had begun collecting Japanese woodcut prints as early as 1856 and owned more than two hundred examples by the end of his life. Hayashi, in turn, assembled his own collection of Impressionist paintings, including works by Monet, Degas, Pissarro, and Renoir, and in 1893 organised the first exhibition of Impressionist art in Japan.