This work will be included in the second supplement to the Catalogue raisonné des tableaux, pastels, dessins et aquarelles de Renoir being prepared by Guy-Patrice and Floriane Dauberville, published by Bernheim-Jeune.
“Renoir was always discovering and rediscovering the world at every instant of his existence, with every breath of fresh air he drew,” his son Jean wrote. “It is because of this eager, child-like curiosity that Renoir was so fond of children” (Renoir, Paris, 1962, p. 198). That profound sympathy and affection is clearly manifest in this charming portrait of a young boy, rendered in lively strokes of pastel that convey the spirit and vivacity of childhood. “If he frequently used that medium to depict those near and dear to him,” François Daulte has explained, “it was because pastel, which combines color with line, gave him the possibility of working rapidly to capture in all their vividness the rapid flash of intelligence and the fleeting show of emotion” (Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Watercolors, Pastels, and Drawings in Color, London, 1959, p. 10).
The boy in this portrait, with short black hair and impish features, is quite possibly André Berard–the eldest child of the influential banker and diplomat Paul Berard, one of the greatest patrons of Renoir’s career. “It was the nonconformist and skeptical Berard,” Colin Bailey has written, “with a large family and a wide social acquaintance–each of whom was a potential subject for Renoir’s brush–who played Maecenas to Renoir’s Virgil” (Renoir’s Portraits, exh. cat., National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1997, p. 34). Berard met Renoir in winter 1878 at Madame Charpentier’s salon and, at the suggestion of their mutual friend Charles Deudon, commissioned the artist to paint a portrait of his eight-year-old daughter Marthe (Dauberville, no. 504; Musée d’Art de São Paulo). Delighted with the results, Berard invited Renoir to spend the summer with him and his family at their château in Wargemont, near Dieppe–and thus began a warm friendship that endured until Berard’s death in 1905, long after he had stopped collecting.
Over the course of five summer sojourns at Wargemont between 1879 and 1884, Renoir made no fewer than a dozen portraits of the Berard children (André, Marthe, and their younger sisters Margot and Lucie), which transcend the constraints of formal society portraiture to express a genuine tenderness for his subjects. “It is clear that he felt a real affection for Berard’s young brood,” Bailey has written (ibid., p. 170).
André, who was eleven when Renoir first came to stay, is the subject of two oils, one full- and one half-length, as well as another pastel (Dauberville, nos. 566-567, 619). He appears too, absorbed in a book, in an unusual group portrait–a family album of sorts–from 1881, which comprises eight independent vignettes of the siblings in relaxed poses (Dauberville, no. 282; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA). In all these images, as in the present pastel, André wears a gray school uniform with a wide, white collar, signifying the elite education afforded to a boy of his station. Here, this somber attire contrasts with the vivid green background, the color of new grass, and with the delicate complexion of the boy, who looks younger than his years. Renoir was sufficiently pleased with his portraits of André that he suggested to Berard, who organized his Salon entries in 1882, that he might submit one of them, though this did not come to pass (see ibid., p. 8).
Although the present pastel has been identified in the past as a portrait of Renoir’s eldest son Pierre in 1889-1890, at age four or five, the artist’s numerous paintings of Pierre from these years invariably show him as with round, rosy cheeks and auburn hair, most unlike the boy depicted here (e.g. Dauberville, nos. 1279-1283, 1403-1404). Moreover, Pierre does not seem to have had his first haircut yet at that age, as Renoir wanted to preserve as long as possible his thick, glossy curls, which fell past his collar; the artist painted him only rarely after his tresses had been cut.
John Whitehead, who owned this portrait for nearly three decades, deemed it his favorite work in his entire collection. “It is the one I would pick,” he declared, “if I were landed on a desert island and could only have one” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1997, p. 66).