This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue critique of Pierre-Auguste Renoir being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute established from the archives of François Daulte, Durand-Ruel, Venturi, Vollard and Wildenstein.
In 1889, when Renoir painted this hushed, intimate scene of a pretty country girl absorbed in her sweeping, he was in the midst of an important period of artistic reassessment and renewal. Two years earlier, he had exhibited Les grandes baigneuses, a veritable manifesto of the hard-edged, Ingresque manner that he had assiduously cultivated since 1884 (Dauberville, no. 1292; Philadelphia Museum of Art). Confident that he had brought this linear style to its pinnacle–and simultaneously disheartened that this monumental painting, in which he had invested so much, had met with a largely hostile response–Renoir embarked on a new path almost as soon as the exhibition closed. “I have taken up again, never to abandon it, my old style, soft and light of touch,” he explained to his dealer Durand-Ruel (quoted in Renoir, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1985, p. 254).
After toiling away in Paris throughout the mid-1880s, Renoir now began to travel extensively in the French countryside, applying his exquisitely soft new manner to the depiction of a gentle, almost idyllic vision of rural life. “It’s only if my means won’t allow it that I will shut myself up in the stuffy studio,” he wrote to Eugène Manet (quoted in B.E. White, Renoir: His Life, Art, and Letters, New York, 1984, p. 188). In addition to a long series of modern-day fêtes champêtres, which show young bourgeois women enjoying the pleasures of the countryside, he painted peasants at work and at rest–washerwomen on the banks of the river, grape pickers breaking from the harvest, girls carrying baskets of oranges and fish to market, a young farm worker holding a scythe by her side. Unique in this genre for its interior setting, La Balayeuse represents Renoir’s definitive statement on the theme of domestic labor, presented here as healthy, clean, and comfortable work.
Renoir most likely painted this tranquil scene in the summer of 1889, which he spent near Aix-en-Provence in a house that he rented from Cézanne’s brother-in-law. The model is his longtime companion Aline Charigot, the mother of his young son Pierre, whom he has depicted as a wholesome country girl with a hearty, robust physique and tendrils of dark hair escaping from a simple chignon. The rustic interior appears quiet and well-ordered, with whitewashed walls, earthen-colored flooring, and a single ceramic jug awaiting use in the corner. The palette is warm and muted, with Aline’s pink apron providing a focal point; light enters from the left, falling onto her porcelain skin and white blouse. Turned in profile, her head slightly bowed, she appears intent on her light housework and unaware of the viewer’s presence, lending the image a sense of self-contained intimacy.
Although the theme of a woman sweeping has precedent in Millet, who had been given a major retrospective in Paris in 1887, Renoir’s Balayeuse suggests none of the back-breaking labor that characterizes the Barbizon master’s peasant imagery. In its sense of harmony and ease, the painting is closer to Pissarro’s rural subjects–in particular, La petite bonne de campagne, 1882–but it lacks their subtly anarchist implications (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 681; Tate, London). The best comparison, perhaps, is not an explicitly rural scene at all, but instead Vermeer’s exquisite Lacemaker, which similarly creates a poetry of silence; Renoir is said to have considered this canvas, along with Watteau’s Embarkation for Cythera, one of the two most beautiful paintings in the world (1669-1670; Musée du Louvre, Paris).