The youthful, red-headed bather who fills the impressively sized Baigneuse au bracelet, Andrée was a familiar figure in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s life at the time that he painted it in Les Collettes, his bucolic home set in the hills above Cagnes in the south of France. Later a star of French silent films, Andrée Heuchling, known to her friends as Dédée, had been a professional model working in the École Nationale d’Art Décoratif in Nice, when she met Aline Renoir, who, recognizing in her appearance and character the perfect model for her husband, invited her to come and work for him.
Dédée’s arrival in Renoir’s household inspired a new period of productivity in the artist’s life, as he painted the female nude with an indefatigable fervor. As his friend, Albert André, wrote to Renoir’s dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, in December 1916, “He is doing magnificent things. He has a model that he likes a lot and he dreams of doing great things.” André later added, “Finally during the last four years, the happy discovery of a beautiful pink and blonde creature seemed to make Renoir’s dreams come true and to rejuvenate him completely…” (quoted in B.E. White, Renoir: An Intimate Biography, London, 2017, pp. 322-324). The artist’s son, Jean Renoir, who fell in love with Dédée and subsequently married her in 1920, described, “her ‘skin took the light’ better than any model that Renoir ever had in his life. She sang, slightly off key, the popular songs of the day; told stories about her girlfriends…and cast over my father the revivifying spell of her joyous youth. Along with the roses, which grew almost wild at Les Collettes, and the great olive trees with their silvery reflections, Andrée was one of the vital elements which helped Renoir to interpret on his canvas the tremendous cry of love he uttered at the end of his life” (Renoir, My Father, New York, 1958, p. 426).
Marrying a timeless grandeur with a sense of modernity, in Baigneuse au bracelet, Andrée, Renoir transformed the petite, blue-eyed Dédée into a monumental bather, a resplendent, vital goddess who appears in complete harmony with the natural world that surrounds her. Since Renoir’s seminal trip to Italy in 1881, the art of the past had played an ever more important role in his painting. In this final decade it was the work of Titian and Rubens that came to the fore in Renoir’s own conception of the female nude. “That old Titian, he even looks like me, and he is forever stealing my tricks” Renoir is said to have quipped at this time (quoted in Renoir, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1985, p. 278). In a manner akin to Titian’s late technique, Renoir adopted a radiant, rich palette applied with sensuous yet delicate brushstrokes that lend nudes such as Baigneuse au bracelet, Andrée such a glowing monumentality.
In the opening decades of the 20th Century, the classically-inspired female nude was a controversial subject in the avant-garde. Yet, as the First World War ravaged France, the nude and its iconographic implications—the embodiment of a calm harmony, abundance and wholeness, and of French classicism and by extension antiquity—were reembraced by artists as part of the nascent “Return to Order,” the aesthetic sensibility that would come to define the wartime and post-war avant-garde. As the poet and writer, Guillaume Apollinaire had surmised in his review of the now infamous Futurist exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris in 1912, “the suppression of the nude for ten years is the unwitting consequence of a subliminal decision made by nearly all modern artists. Yet the aged Renoir, the greatest painter of our time and one of the greatest painters of all time, devotes his final days to painting these admirable and voluptuous nudes, which will command the admiration of generations to come” (quoted in Renoir: The Body, The Senses, exh. cat., Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, 2019, p. 47). At around the same time as Modigliani was painting his series of recumbent, sensually reclining and seated nudes, so Renoir too was immersed in this world of artistic idealism, abundance, harmony and peace, conjuring in canvases such as the present, worlds that were far removed from the terrifying reality that France faced.