Painted in 1890, Vase d’anémones illustrates the central role floral still lifes played in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s artistic development, the elaborate bouquets acting as a site for experimentation throughout his long career. Though frequently remembered as a painter of the female figure, flowers, with their endless nuances of hue and form, exerted an equal fascination upon the artist. While he recommended Julie Manet practice creating still lifes “in order to learn to paint quickly,” the numerous and often highly ambitious works that Renoir executed in this genre over the course of his career attest to his sustained interest in the still-life genre as an end in itself (J. Manet, diary entry 29 September, 1898, in R. de Boland Roberts and J. Roberts, eds., Growing up with the Impressionists: The Diary of Julie Manet, London, 1987, p. 190). Indeed, it was in these compositions that Renoir pursued some of his most searching investigations into the effects of light and color on objects and surfaces, exploring the subtle shifts in tone, texture and form that could be discovered from the smallest adjustments to the artist’s vantage point.
As he explained to his friend Georges Rivière, floral still lifes such as the present composition provided Renoir with a certain respite from the demands of his large scale portraits and figure paintings: “Painting flowers rests my brain. I do not bring the same tension to them as I do when I am face to face with a model. When I paint flowers, I place colors and experiment with values boldly, without worrying about wasting a canvas. I wouldn’t dare to do this with a figure, for fear of spoiling the whole thing” (quoted in M. Lucy and J. House, Renoir in the Barnes Foundation, New Haven and London, 2012, p. 263). The still lifes he created during this period were, for the most part, simply staged, typically concentrating on a vase and flowers atop an empty table. Focusing the eye on the arrangement alone, Renoir imbued these humble, everyday objects with a sense of grandeur and monumentality, allowing them to fill the entire canvas, with some flowers even disappearing beyond the edges of the painting.
Although Renoir was not the avid gardener that Monet was, his corpus of floral still lifes from the late 1870s through to the 1890s nonetheless showcases a broad range of blooms, often including roses, peonies, lilacs, gladioli, anemones, and geraniums in their arrangements. According to Ambroise Vollard, “Madame Renoir always kept flowers in the house, arranged in those inexpensive, pretty green vases that caught Renoir’s fancy in the shop windows” (quoted in M. Hoog, Catalogue of the Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume Collection, Paris, 1987, p. 208). Here, the artist focuses on a large, luscious bouquet of summer anemones as they hover on the edge of full bloom, their colors ranging from soft pinks and delicate whites to rich, striking reds. Filling the full expanse of the blue and white patterned vase, the bouquet seems to burst with life, the anemones tumbling into one another and over the edge of their container. Renoir emphasizes the variation between each bloom by placing flowers of different shapes and stages of opening alongside one another—in some, the petals have fully unfurled to reveal their dark centers, while others remain as tight buds, waiting to reach their full beauty. His passion for these brightly hued anemones was shared by many of his artistic contemporaries, from Vincent van Gogh to Henri Matisse, the latter of whom was advised by Renoir to contemplate floral arrangements from all possible angles before choosing to paint the most unexpected view. Matisse clearly took this advice to heart—in Anémones au miroir noir of 1919, for example, the delicate blossoms are set against the deep black of a circular mirror hanging on the wall. However, instead of reflecting an image of the flowers back as expected, the mirror remains a dark, blank plane thanks to the artist’s vantage point, its inky surface heightening the coloristic vibrancy of the anemones in the vase. In Vase d’anémones, Renoir keeps his background unadorned, allowing the blooms to stand out against the rich red ground.