This work will be included in the critical catalogue of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's paintings being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute.
Brimming with light and colour, Corbeille de fleurs is a floral still life by Pierre-Auguste Renoir that is filled with lush detail and gives a sense of the cornucopia, of plenty, of fertility. Painted in 1890, this picture perfectly encapsulates Renoir's love of beauty, and as a vision of a world of fecundity and sensual pleasures can be seen as a parallel to his celebrated depictions of women. Indeed, in the lavish brushwork that fills this canvas, the artist's own enjoyment of the motif, his own pleasure in creating this sumptuous vision, are palpable. It is a tribute to the quality of this painting that it has had an incredibly distinguished history, and indeed was formerly in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
For Renoir, the processes of painting still life and of painting figures were different, yet were intertwined: 'I just let my brain rest when I paint flowers. I don't experience the same tension as I do when confronted by the model. When I am painting flowers, I establish the tones, I study the values carefully without worrying about losing the picture. I don't dare do this with a figure piece for fear of ruining it. The experience I gain from these works, I eventually apply to my [figure] paintings' (Renoir, quoted in D.W. Druick, Renoir, Chicago, 1997, p. 57). In part, this was due to the stillness of the motif, which allowed the artist to contemplate it for far longer stretches. This may have played its part in allowing Renoir time to capture the incredible wealth of detail with which he has filled this picture.
For many artists, the floral still life has served as a warning about vanity or a memento mori; for Renoir, it is clear that beauty is his primary concern, as is clear from looking at Corbeille de fleurs. The artist has covered the surface in the shimmering, feathered brushstrokes for which he was so renowned. His techniques have also allowed him to grant those colours a near-translucence, allowing the white that it was his habit to use as a base to lend the picture a glow, a luminescence that heightens the beauty of the work itself, and of its subject matter. Looking at Corbeille de fleurs, one can easily see the truth of Renoir's statement that, 'For me, a picture should be something likeable, joyous, and pretty - yes, pretty. There are enough ugly things in life for us not to add to them' (Renoir, quoted in ibid., p. 10). The incandescent palette of the flowers here almost burns with its reds, yellows and oranges on the canvas, recalling the celebrations of colour that his friend Claude Monet was painting during the same period in his specially-designed gardens in Giverny.
Looking back at the Impressionist period from a modern perspective, it is perhaps hard to understand that Renoir's belief that art should be beautiful was controversial at the time, especially among his peers in the group itself. Renoir's appreciation of beauty and his desire to capture it in his pictures, rather than the obsession shared by so many of his colleagues among the ranks of the Impressionists to capture sensation, nature and, most of all, reality, put him at odds with many of the avant garde figures of the age. Indeed, many of those were his own friends and acquaintances. While no-one disputed his own importance to the modernisation of painting to which he had been such a vital contributor and to the conveying of sensation in those works, yet there remained a gulf between his pictures and those of his contemporaries. Donald W. Druick has suggested that Renoir's quest for beauty in all things, to capture and convey a sliver of wonder to the world, was rooted in his own modest background, in his own first-hand experience of the social subjects and realistic views that his friends from more affluent backgrounds often wished to explore in their paintings. For Renoir, painting was a triumph and an escape, and indeed had provided him with his own means of financial escape.
Renoir's counter-cultural love of beauty dated in part back to his apprenticeship in his early teens as a decorator of Sèvres porcelain, when he often showed Rococo scenes. Later, he was briefly paid to copy pictures from the Louvre for a picture restorer. He thus knew first-hand the pictures of the Old Masters, a fact that comes as no surprise looking at Corbeille de fleurs, which has taken up the gauntlet of the flower painting genre and added to it his own unique spin. This work has a sensual opulence that bespeaks fertility; the viewer almost expects to be overcome by the aroma of these gleefully decadent over-spilling and overpowering blooms, so vivid are they. The composition, with the upper flowers spilling over the edge of the canvas, reinforces the effect of natural opulence that fills the painting.
Corbeille de fleurs was formerly in the collection of Alfred Cassirer, who was a member of the celebrated art dealer family of the same name. Alfred was not a dealer himself, but instead an industrialist, a collector, and indeed a hot-air balloon enthusiast. The picture subsequently passed to his daughter, Eva, a professor of philosophy whose childhood likeness by Georg Kolbe was donated by her father to the museum dedicated to the artist. It later belonged to Colonel C. Michael Paul, an oil magnate who was born in Mongolia where his father was serving with the Russian army as a surgeon. Colonel C. Michael Paul was a talented violinist and a former owner of the Villa Leopolda in the South of France; he was also a discerning collector, and several of his works are now in museum collections, as indeed was Corbeille de fleurs after its bequest by his sister, Raymonde. This was an extension of the philanthropy espoused by both brother and sister alike, especially through the Foundation that bears his name.