The magnificent Grande laveuse is widely considered Renoir's sculptural magnum opus. Conceived in 1917, this monumental work was the last sculpture completed by the artist in his collaboration with Richard Guino, who soon thereafter left Essoyes and Cagnes never to return again. Designed to be a companion piece to an equally large seated Le Forgeron, the Grande laveuse was inspired by the abstract notion of elemental opposites. These humble figures--"a simple blacksmith heating the iron, a simple washerwoman scrubbing the laundry"--were devised as connotative icons, illustrating the primordial dichotomy of fire and water (P. Haesaerts, op. cit., p. 31). Cast, significantly, as a man and a woman, the two figures constitute a symbolic paradigm, connoting a virtually endless series of oppositions.
Though Guino completed some sketches for the Le Forgeron in terracotta and plaster, as well as drawings after a model in the scale of execution, Renoir soon grew weary of this partnership and the Le Forgeron was never completed. As such, the Grande laveuse persists as the testament to this ambitious project, and the apotheosis of Renoir's sculptural work. As Haesaerts has observed:
In its present state the statue is beautiful and imposing. It surprises the spectator by its vigor and wildness. The volumes have impressive fullness and density. This huge body, with its rounded shoulders, its wall-like bosom and its powerful buttocks, resembles a great rock, or some heavy Roman architecture. The two outstretched arms, bearing on the two columns formed by the wet linen (a sculptural find), look like two mighty buttresses. They foreshadow the 'primitive' and arrogant forms which sculptors like Jacques Lipchitz (sic) and Henry Moore favor, and which define their abstract art. A head with fleshy, panting lips, a distracted look, a twitching nose, dominates this mass and completes the symphony of muscle and blood in which the cosmic and the animal blend with the human (ibid.).