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.
‘I arrange colours, I try out tonal relationships boldly, without being afraid of spoiling a picture … And the experience I gain from these experiments, I apply then to my major paintings… The open air leads you to put on the canvas colours you would never imagine in the subdued light of the studio.’ -Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Intermittently during the first two decades of his career, Renoir turned to the genre of sous-bois painting—the depiction of a forest interior with sun filtering through the leaves overhead—as a means of testing and refining his artistic skills, challenging himself to evoke the ambient atmosphere of a largely enclosed site. In Sentier dans le bois, Renoir succeeded brilliantly in this endeavour, conveying a palpable impression of envelopment in a sun-dappled wood and deftly capturing the mobile effects of light on foliage as the branches overhead sway in a gentle breeze. It is difficult to imagine a painting that more effectively bears witness to one of the central tenets of Impressionism—the plein air master before nature, rapidly transcribing his most immediate sensations, in all their totality.
In this virtuoso painterly display, Renoir covered almost the whole of the canvas with greenery, differentiating among the myriad types of vegetation through exquisitely subtle variations of hue, touch, and density of paint, responding to the freshness and specificity of each detail of the sylvan landscape in turn. The palette encompasses every conceivable shade of green and blue, with silvery-white accents where the sunlight licks at the leaves; short, feathery touches are juxtaposed with longer, more meandering strokes to create a delicate tapestry of pigment that seems to shimmer before our eyes. ‘This is an exercise in painterly improvisation,’ Christopher Riopelle has written about a closely related landscape, ‘in which we see the artist striving to find, as quickly as possible one imagines, an equivalency between an object in nature and the response it evokes in his mind and eye as his hand moves across the canvas and the springtime sun warms him’ (C. Riopelle, Renoir Landscapes 1865-1883, exh. cat., National Gallery, London, 2007, p. 230).
Despite the impression of utter spontaneity that Renoir conveys, though, his profuse sensations before the motif are organised around a subtle but compelling pictorial structure, which seems to emanate internally from the instantaneous rhythms of the natural elements rather than being imposed upon the site. The dark boughs that hang down across the top of the canvas, backlit against the golden sun, serve as a traditional repoussoir device, establishing the illusion of depth, while simultaneously drawing the eye upward to the hidden source of radiance that magically animates the scene. A narrow footpath enters the composition in the foreground and leads into depth, inviting the viewer to cross into the self-contained realm of the painting and partake of its sensuous pleasures; glowing pools of light articulate the path like stepping stones across a pond, conveying us deeper into the forest interior. In the middle distance, just before the trail disappears into dense undergrowth, a lone figure has paused, perhaps looking back over his shoulder. His diminutive scale suggests that he might be a young boy—an embodiment of innocence within this contemporary garden of Eden.
Renoir painted this extraordinary scene at the very height of the Impressionist moment, during the period of the group’s first three independent exhibitions, held in 1874, 1876, and 1877. These epoch-making shows, which became the touchstone for all such future modernist efforts, had been a long time in the making. As early as 1869, working side-by-side at La Grenouillère, Renoir and Monet had achieved the unprecedented spontaneity of vision in front of nature that would come to define the New Painting. Before they could bring this revolutionary work before the public, however, the catastrophic events of the Franco-Prussian War intervened. In the aftermath, Monet began actively militating toward a progressive association of artists who would mount their own exhibitions—the final leap to a wholly modern mode of painting, free of the entrenched Salon system. Renoir made two last-ditch efforts, both unsuccessful, to show his work at the official Salon before joining forces decisively with his old friend. The ‘Société Anonyme Cooperative des Artistes’ was officially constituted at Renoir’s apartment in Paris in December 1873, and the group finally held their inaugural exhibition the following spring.
Public response to this historic venture was decidedly mixed. A vocal cohort of critics took great affront at the young painters’ audacious subversion of long-standing Salon norms—particularly the gestural brio and freshness of their touch, which conveyed the effect of a motif rapidly experienced and perceived. ‘What do we see in the work of these men?’ Etienne Carjat asked rhetorically in Le Patroite Français during the First Impressionist Exhibition. ‘Nothing but a defiance, almost an insult to the taste and intelligence of the public.’ More prescient observers, in contrast, had no doubt that Renoir and his allies were creating the most forward-thinking and consequential work of any artists in France. ‘The means by which they seek their impressions will infinitely serve contemporary art,’ Armand Silvestre declared in L’Opinion Nationale (quoted in E. Carjat, The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1986, pp. 108-109).
The ideals of the New Painting inform every aspect of the present Sentier dans le bois. The canvas describes an immersive, encompassing encounter with the physicality of nature—a theme that Monet would much later take up in his Nymphéas series. All the air and light in the present scene is filtered through the canopy of leaves, creating an effect of total enclosure, like nature’s own hortus conclusus. The rapid, unblended brushstrokes bear the trace of Renoir’s own hand, implicitly registering his presence in the landscape. The tiny figure midway along the path, barely discernible amidst the vegetation, may be read as a proxy for the artist himself, beholding the majesties of nature as if through the delighted eyes of a child. The path functions as a vortex, pulling the figure—the artist— surrogate—inexorably into the landscape; in the middle distance, the well-trodden path suddenly vanishes from view, conjuring to mind the Impressionists’ own venture into uncharted pictorial territory.
Dauberville has identified the setting for Sentier dans le bois as the Forest of Fontainebleau, a pristine old-growth wood some forty miles southeast of Paris, once the domain and hunting ground of the French kings (G.-P. & M. Dauberville, Renoir: Catalogue raisonné des tableaux, pastels, dessins et aquarelles, vol. I, 1858-1881, Paris, 2007, p. 165). Renoir may have painted the canvas in early summer 1874 during a stay at nearby Marlotte with Jules Le Coeur, a wealthy architect turned painter who had befriended the future Impressionist a decade earlier. On this occasion, the artist’s visit to the Le Coeur family was cut short when Jules intercepted a note that Renoir, then thirty-three, had sent to his host’s sixteen-year-old niece Marie, professing his amorous feelings for her. Abruptly banished from the Le Coeur circle—expelled from the garden, as it were—Renoir re-located to Argenteuil for the remainder of the summer. Renoir is again attested in the Fontainebleau region in summer 1876, when he traveled to nearby Champrosay, on the fringe of the Fôret de Sénart, at the invitation of the writer Alphonse Daudet; he may have made other, undocumented trips to the area as well during these years.
The Forest of Fontainebleau, of course, occupied an exalted place by Renoir’s day in the history of French landscape painting. Beginning in the 1820s, this venerable, unspoiled wood—an example of nature in its purest state, answering the quest for landscape’s metaphoric power— became a veritable open-air studio and a sacred destination for any serious landscape artist, like Italy before it. Rousseau, Corot, and their fellow artists of the Barbizon School, so named for a village on the outskirts of the forest, introduced a new naturalism into landscape painting, privileging direct visual experience over an idealised pastoral vision. In 1866, when Renoir painted his first sous-bois scene, he did so largely in emulation of the Barbizon painters, depicting none other than Jules Le Coeur ascending a steep pathway in a rocky section of the Forest of Fontainebleau, his trusty dogs beside him (Museu de Arte de São Paulo).
A decade later, in the present Sentier dans le bois, the innovative, modern language of Impressionism gave Renoir the tools to depict the forest with a heightened expressive force, conveying more fully the preternatural magic of a hallowed place, primordial in origin and spirit. ‘For a few minutes he always stood in a sort of respectful rapture and emotional silence of the soul, in front of this allée entrance, this triumphal gate, where trees carried on the arch of their superb columns an immense greenery filled with the joy of the day,’ wrote the Goncourts in Manette Salomon of the fictional painter Coriolis, at work in the Forest of Fontainebleau (E. & J. de Goncourt, quoted in G. Tinterow & H. Lorette, eds., Origins of Impressionism, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1994, p. 71). From the evidence of the present painting, we may certainly envision Renoir doing the same.