Pastel came into increasing use for portraiture during the 1880s, mainly through the efforts of Eugène Manet and Edgar Degas. Renoir also adopted this technique and made his own contributions to its revival. His interest in the use of pastel derived from his veneration of 18th century French art; he especially admired Jean-Antoine Watteau's mastery of the technique. Berthe Morisot, Jean-Louis Forain and Armand Guillauman also worked frequently in this medium. These artists concentrated mainly on female sitters, whom they believed to be particularly appropriate subjects for the delicacy, richness and irridescent effects of pastel.
In the present work, Renoir has portrayed a young woman dressed in her most elegant boulevard finery. He worked the sheet very quickly--the marks of the pastel stick are loose and energetic, lending the drawing an air of freshness and spontaneity. Joris-Karl Huysmans described Renoir as "A gallant and adventurous magician...He is the true painter of young women; he renders in sparkling sunshine the sheen of their tender skin, the velvet of their flesh, the luster of their eyes, the elegance of their gestures" (quoted in N. Wadley, Renoir: A Retrospective, New York, 1987, p. 156)
Renoir's rendering of the young woman in this drawing also shows the influence of his sojourn in Italy in 1881. He became fond of showing his female sitters in the half-length, three-quarter and profile poses which he observed in portraits by the Renaissance masters.
At the end of his life Renoir told his son Jean: "What is certain is that since my trip to Italy I've been working away at the same problems" (quoted in J. House, "Renoir's Worlds," Renoir, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1985, p. 15). Certainly one of the most important of these challenges was to discover the most effective means of transforming the modern woman into l'éternal feminin, for Renoir believed that "in literature as well as in painting, talent is shown only by the treatment of the feminine figure" (ibid., p. 16).