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.
The late 1880s and early 1890s represent a watershed period in Renoir's career. In the opening weeks of 1887, the artist put the finishing touches on Les grandes baigneuses (Dauberville, vol. II, no. 1292), a veritable manifesto of the linear, Ingresque style that he had begun to develop three years earlier. He had high hopes for the monumental painting of five frolicking nymphs, which he had meticulously planned in some twenty preliminary studies. When the painting was exhibited in May at the Galerie Georges Petit, however, the critical response was emphatically negative.
After brooding throughout the fall over this disappointment, Renoir rebounded with vigor in early 1888. He began to travel again widely, seeking inspiration in the richly colored art of Titian, Peter Paul Rubens, and the French Rococo, and he renounced the cool tones, dry surface, and hard-edged contours of Les grandes baigneuses. "I have taken up again, never to abandon it, my old style, soft and light of touch," he told Paul Durand-Ruel. "It's nothing new, but rather a follow-up to the paintings of the eighteenth century. This is to give you some idea of my new and final manner of painting (like Fragonard, but not so good). Those fellows who give the impression of not painting nature knew more about it than we do" (quoted in Renoir in the Barnes Foundation, New Haven, 2012, p. 121).
Renoir's new approach was an immediate success, ushering in a decade of mounting prosperity and long-awaited fame for the artist, who was by then nearing fifty. Durand-Ruel began to buy eagerly from Renoir once more, confident in his ability to find buyers. The linchpin of Renoir's work during this period was a long sequence of paintings depicting the carefree, idyllic recreations of pretty bourgeois girls, informally dressed in summer frocks and ribboned sunhats. "It was with pictures such as these, it seems, that the artist found a real market in the 1890s," John House has noted (Renoir, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1985, p. 251). The women Renoir most often painted appear softer and more idealized than the naturalistic young grisettes or working girls whom Renoir had painted in Paris during the 1870s, and their poses are reserved and innocent, with none of the provocative undertones that sometimes characterize his earlier genre scenes.
In the present painting, the young woman carefully fixes her hair into an updo, her gaze drifting out ahead, either into a mirror in front of her, or simply into space as she daydreams. The girl appears absorbed in her quiet activity, lending the image a dreamy, subdued intimacy that contrasts with the rapid, fluid brushwork and jubilant coloration.