Formerly in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, Femme au jardin encapsulates Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s distinctive form of Impressionist portraiture. Once described by Camille Pissarro as the ‘portraitiste éminent’ of Paris, Renoir is perhaps best known for his portraits. Over the course of his career, he completely revived this genre, depicting his sitters with his distinctive soft palette and light brushwork to capture a particular vitality, charm, and beauty. By the time he painted the present work around 1890, Renoir was widely renowned as the leading portraitist of his time, painting both commissioned depictions of Paris’s fashionable beau-monde, as well as portraying unidentified young women in interior settings and idyllic gardens or the countryside, such as the present work.
In Femme au jardin, Renoir has captured his young and elegant sitter amid a verdant garden, her white striped blouse and rose coloured skirt luminous amid the tapestry of emerald and light green and yellow tones that surrounds her. A quintessential Impressionist theme, the motif of a woman sitting in a garden was one of Renoir’s favourite at this time, allowing him to marry his deft handling of the female form with the effects of light and atmosphere conjured by the natural world. Having been inspired by the art of Rubens and Titian, Renoir fused a classically-inspired handling of the female figure with his quintessential Impressionist subjects, often setting his sitters in contemporary garb in a modern garden. ‘I'm trying to fuse the landscape with my figures,’ he wrote to the dealer René Gimpel. ‘The old masters never attempted this’ (quoted in J. House, Renoir, exh. cat., London, 1985, p. 278).
The subtle detail of the female protagonist’s attire in Femme au jardin, including her flower trimmed straw hat, is a reflection of Renoir’s lifelong love of female fashion. The son of a tailor, throughout his life Renoir was enchanted by the visual pageantry of costume displayed in modern Paris. He had a particular predilection for the decorative, often elaborate women’s hats that were the height of fashion at this time. Drawn to the compelling femininity of these accessories, he also relished the elaborate folds, colours, fabrics and textures of these extravagant headpieces. His interest in millinery is well documented. Suzanne Valadon, an artist who occasionally modelled for Renoir in the early 1880s reminisced that, ‘Renoir particularly loved women’s hats. He put heaps of them on my head… He took me to the milliners’ shops; he never ceased buying lots of hats’ (quoted in J. House and M. Lucy, Renoir in the Barnes Foundation, New Haven and London, 2012, p. 245). The artist not only bought hats for his models but also delighted in designing them himself, so as to enhance their artistic interest; later, in 1895, Berthe Morisot’s daughter, Julie Manet, recalled that Renoir showed her ‘a portrait of a model with a ravishing hat made of white muslin with a rose on it, which he himself had made’ (quoted in ibid., p. 245).
More than documenting the ever-changing trends in female style however, Renoir’s female portraits allowed him to revel in his desire to convey the physical presence of the model. Renoir wanted the protagonists of his portraits to evoke a sense of touch; ‘What goes on inside my head doesn’t interest me,’ he once exclaimed, ‘I want to touch… or at least to see!’ (quoted in L. Gowing, ‘Renoir’s sentiment and sense’, in ibid., p. 32). In Femme au jardin the female figure is depicted with a sense of monumentality amid the sun drenched garden. In contrast to the loose, dappled brushstrokes of the foliage behind, Renoir has depicted the woman with long, sinuous strokes, lending her a sense of stability – and sensuality – amid the abundantly blossoming setting.