Audio: Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
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Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)

Nu couché, vu de dos, sur fond ocre

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
Nu couché, vu de dos, sur fond ocre
signed 'Renoir' (lower right)
oil on canvas
11 5/8 x 16 1/2 in. (29.5 x 42 cm.)
Painted circa 1885
Georges Bernheim, Paris.
Galerie Bernheim-Jeune et Cie., Paris (no. 21857), by whom acquired from the above on 8 January 1920.
Cacheran, by whom acquired from the above on 7 March 1923.
Anonymous sale, Galerie Charpentier, Paris, 12 June 1953, lot 35.
Anonymous sale, Sotheby's, London, 5 December 1962, lot 151.
Anonymous sale, Sotheby's, London, 17 July 1971, lot 71.
A. Murray, by whom acquired at the above sale.
Private collection, Japan, by whom acquired circa 1980; sale, Christie's, New York, 3 November 2009, lot 18.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
G.-P. & M. Dauberville, Renoir, Catalogue raisonné des tableaux, pastels, dessins et aquarelles, vol. II, Paris, 2009, no. 1344, p. 410 (illustrated).

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Antoine Lebouteiller
Antoine Lebouteiller

Lot Essay

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.

‘In literature as well as in painting, talent is shown only by the treatment of the feminine figures’ (Renoir, 1890s, quoted in Renoir, exh. cat., London, 1985, p.16).

Since the mid-1870s Impressionism had fused figure and ground, granting an equal significance to both. From the 1880s Renoir rejected this process and reinstated the traditional humanistic view of the figure as the painter’s prime focus, turning his attention to the female nude. This stood in stark contrast to the aims of the Impressionist movement, which sought to disengage with the classical aesthetic of academic art and concentrate instead on the ever-changing outdoor world of modern life. This change in direction can be seen, in part, due to his visit to Italy in 1881, where Renoir was struck by the Raphael frescoes he saw in Rome and the Pompeian works in Naples. Renoir yearned for a greater sense of timelessness in his work and looked to his idols Rubens, Titian, Fragonard and Boucher for inspiration, whose paintings he saw on his travels. Renoir saw himself as a descendent of these great masters and his work a continuation in the lineage of classic French painting, declaring: ‘With all modesty, I consider not only that my art descends from a Watteau, a Fragonard, a Hubert Robert, but also that I am one with them’ (Renoir, quoted in J. Renoir, Renoir on Renoir: Interviews, Essays, and Remarks, New York, 1989, p. 66).

One cannot, however, view Renoir’s nudes as being entirely classical, for they eschewed the traditional linearity and precision of French classicism and presented instead a looser, more fluid and expressive technique of painting the female figure. As seen in Nu couché, vu de dos, sur fond ocre, Renoir used thin layers of paint, built up to create a surface which gave the glowing, milky appearance of skin, successfully conveying the translucent layering of tints and the radiant blush of living flesh. Accurate atomic detail was replaced with a greater desire to express sensuality and a cohesive picture surface. The figure became disconnected from its setting, which as seen here, was often presented as simply a blur of animated brushstrokes. Indeed this sense of dislocation became customary from the 1880s onwards in Renoir’s nudes, where space became less defined, to the point of being ambiguous. John House explains: ‘The figures become more abstracted from the world, inhabitants of an Arcadian vision that, fully aware of sensual delights, nevertheless transcends everyday reality’ (R. Shone, A Very Private Collection: Janice H. Levin's Impressionist Pictures, New York, 2002, p. 57).

In Nu couché, vu de dos, sur fond ocre Renoir’s nude is seen facing away from us, her body is positioned into an S-shape so that the curve of her hips is highlighted. Renoir further accentuates her feminine guile through her long, flowing hair snaking down her back and the soft furls of white fabric that lie beneath her, which emphasises the furrows of her flesh. The sensuality and sense of display that is presented here is reminiscent of the Orientalist atmosphere of the harem odalisque, a theme which Renoir was to continue to explore over the next few years, producing works such as Femme nue couchée, Gabrielle, in 1903. Renoir had traveled twice to Algeria in 1881 and 1882 and was greatly moved by Orientalist art, enjoying the beguiling mood of idleness and reverie and their preference for tastefully exposed flesh. Renoir looked to the poised nudes of Ingres as well, who like him, saw that the quintessential beauty of the nude lay in her sensuality. However it is important to recognise that these were not simply works of voyeurism but were portraits of the bodies surface, which were translated into bold and modern experiments in painting. Martha Lucy reiterates that the nude became a ground in which Renoir could develop his skills, she states: ‘The nude was like a canvas on which Renoir could repeatedly explore his formal and theoretical interests, such as the relationship between color and light, surface and volume, and vision and touch’ (quoted in M. Lucy and J. House, Renoir, New Haven, 2012, p. 209).

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