In his important figure composition Les grandes baigneuses, completed in 1887 (Daulte, no. 514; coll. The Philadelphia Museum of Art), Renoir had hoped to introduce more classical elements into Impressionism. The figures were precisely drawn, in the manner of Ingres, there is a greater sense of realism overall, as well as some concessions to the direction of contemporary academic tastes, as seen in the nudes of William-Adolphe Bouguereau. The painting was poorly received, however; the novelist and critic J.-K. Huysmans called it "old-fashioned," and Renoir did not sell it until two years later, to the painter Jacques-Emile Blanche for a mere 1,000 francs. This disappointment caused Renoir to question this new direction in his work. Subsequently, in his nudes of the 1890s, he returned to a looser, more painterly handling of form and color. Moreover, his rheumatoid arthritis was now increasingly affecting his manual dexterity, so that it was more comfortable for the artist to work in a broader, less detailed manner. He turned adversity in his life into a strength in his art, resulting in a new found popularity for his work in the early 1890s. He began to make numerous sales, finally leaving behind the lean years he had endured during the previous decade.
The present painting displays the virtues of Renoir's late nudes--while the figure is ripely sensual, there is no hint of lascivious voyeurism, and the setting is charmingly domestic. The critic Gustave Geoffroy wrote that Renoir's nudes "are a wholly individual idea, these young girls who are sensual without vice, oblivious without cruelty, irresponsible though gently woken into life..." (quoted in J. House, Renoir, exh. cat., The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1985, p. 264). The raven-haired model is very likely Gabrielle Renard, who joined the Renoir household as a nursemaid in 1894 at the age of fifteen. While she appeared clothed in numerous paintings during the mid-1890s, she did not pose nude for Renoir until she was nearly twenty. The artist's son Jean, later a famous film director, recalled that it was his mother who suggested the idea when the russet-haired "La Boulangére," Renoir's favorite nude model, was ill, and the artist was reluctant to hire a local substitute with a dubious reputation. "[Gabrielle] was in the flower of youth. She was so accustomed to seeing her friends pose in the nude that she took the suggestion as a matter of course" (in Renoir, My Father, New York, 1958, p. 365).
John House has written that Renoir's "nudes of the 1890s are on the borderline between modernity and timelessness" (op. cit.). Indeed, it was by adapting a looser, more openly expressive technique to the fullness of the female figure, and eschewing the conventional linearity and precision of French classicism, that Renoir forged his own brand of contemporary classicism, no longer "old-fashioned," as Huysmans had complained, in which form seemed to burst open and flower into a natural ripeness and fulfillment that appeared frozen in time. "The quintessence of beauty for him was still sensuousness, best expressed through plump young women who are the link between the cycle of life and artistic creativity" (B.E. White, Renoir, His Life, His Art, and Letters, New York, 1984, p. 280).