This work will be included in the forthcoming Pierre-Auguste Renoir Digital Catalogue Raisonné, currently being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Plattner Institute, Inc.
Renoir painted this monumental male nude in 1885, while deeply engaged in a process of experimentation and resolution, during which he wholly re-ordered his goals as a painter. Early in the decade, increasingly dissatisfied with the Impressionist goal of capturing ephemeral and contingent effects, he sought new ideas in the art of the past, studying the work of Ingres and immersing himself in Cennino Cennini’s Il Libro dell’Arte, a 15th century Florentine manual of painting technique. In the autumn and winter of 1881-1882, he undertook a three-month voyage to Italy, where he admired 'the grandeur and simplicity of the ancient painters' and became ever more convinced that he was on the right course. During the ensuing three years, he travelled very little, exhibited only occasionally, and accepted few portrait commissions, focusing instead on consolidating a timeless and classicizing vision for his art, based on the primacy of the human form.
Renoir’s inspiration for the powerfully built figure that dominates the present canvas came from ancient Roman statues of reclining river-gods, who were frequently depicted pouring water from an upturned jug. The painter could have seen any number of these venerable personifications in the Eternal City, along with their Baroque counterparts such as Bernini’s Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona. Renoir’s figure is indebted in pose and physique as well to Michelangelo’s sculpture personifying Day on Giuliano de’ Medici’s tomb in Florence and to the long-haired male deity in the foreground of Raphael’s fresco from the Villa Farnesina depicting a council of gods on Mount Olympus. The robust articulation of the musculature in the present painting suggests that Renoir worked from observation, posing a hired model in his Paris studio to bring these various classical prototypes to life.
While this canvas represents Renoir’s sole, unique, and definitive statement on the theme of the male river-god, he later created a trio of large-scale decorative panels that depict a nude woman reclining by a stream, the female body envisioned as humankind’s elemental life source (Dauberville, nos. 2442 & 3152, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia; no. 2447, Christie’s, London, 21 June 2011, lot 29). These paintings repeat the elongated format of the male Fleuve, with the figure likewise viewed at close range against a softly brushed, imaginary landscape ground. 'Perhaps the most impressive technical aspect of [the present] painting,' John Maxon wrote, 'lies in its extraordinary anticipation of Renoir’s last manner, in the heroic cast of the forms, the softness of focus, and the insistence on both the solidity of the shapes and the concomitant flatness of the picture plane' (J. Moxon, Paintings by Renoir, exh. cat., Chicago, 1973, n.p.).