The 1880s were an experimental and transitional period for Renoir in which the artist created some of his greatest works. At the beginning of the decade, he painted Le déjeuner des canotiers (Daulte, no. 379; Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.); in 1884 he created the magnificent group portrait of the Bérard family, L'après-midi des enfants à Wargemont (Daulte, no. 457; Nationalgalerie, Berlin); and in 1887 he completed and exhibited Les grandes baigneuses (fig. 1), his most monumental interpretation of the bather theme to date. The present work--depicting a young semi-nude woman in the pose of classical sculpture, standing in a vividly colored and brightly illuminated landscape--exemplifies the most characteristic and attractive features of Renoir's paintings from this decade.
In the mid-1880s, the nude took on a greater importance for the painter than it had earlier in his career. As Berthe Morisot recorded in her diary in January of 1886, "[Renoir] tells me that the nude seems to him to be one of the indispensable forms of art" (quoted in B.E. White, Renoir, New York, 1984, p. 174). The present painting derives from Renoir's studies for Les grandes baigneuses. The artist intended that canvas to be a major statement of his aesthetic principles and he devised its composition slowly between 1885 and 1887; more than twenty drawings and oil sketches record the evolution of the work. As painted, Les grandes baigneuses features five female nudes, but preliminary studies show as many as seven nude figures; one drawing includes a standing nude at the left edge of the sheet whose pose is nearly identical to that of the woman in the present picture, but seen frontally rather than in right profile (see B.E. White, Renoir: His Life, Art and Letters, New York, 1984, p. 170; Private Collection). Another painting, also from 1887, shows the same figure in left profile (fig. 2). The existence of three versions of the same figure seen in three different views indicates that the artist studied this pose from a live model in the studio, sketching her from various angles. The elaborate care he took in recording this pose must be seen in light of his intentions for Les grandes baigneuses, which he hoped would be recognized as a masterpiece to rival great interpretations of the subject from the past. It is well known that the immediate origins of this work lay in a frieze of nude nymphs by Girardon at Versailles; but Renoir also looked to French masters of the eighteenth century such as Fragonard and Boucher. In a letter to Durand-Ruel in 1885, he wrote:
I've taken up again the old sweet and light way of painting... It's nothing new, but it's a sequel to 18th-century paintings...
This is to explain my new technique (Fragonard, but not so
good... Believe me, I'm not comparing myself to an 18th-century
master. But I have to explain to you in what direction I'm
working. (Quoted in ibid., pp. 157-158)
Renoir also meant to emulate Ingres and Raphael, whose paintings he admired during his visit to Italy in 1881. In reference to Les grandes baigneuses he said, "I believe I am going to beat Raphael and that people in the year 1887 are going to be amazed" (quoted in ibid., p. 166). Renoir was motivated not only by his ambition to rival the greatest exemplars of Old Master painting and to establish his place in the history of art, but also by his hope of creating a commercially viable alternative to the highly popular paintings of nudes by Bouguereau.
To achieve these goals, Renoir wanted to invest his nudes with simplicity and grandeur. Jean Renoir recalls his father saying:
I like painting best when it looks eternal without boasting about it: an everyday eternity, revealed on the street-corner: a
serving girl, pausing a moment as she scours a saucepan, and
becoming a Juno on Olympus. (J. Renoir, Renoir, My Father,
Boston, 1958, p. 233)
The figure in the present work epitomizes Renoir's goal of directness and ideality. Her pose is derived from that of classical sculpture, specifically the Capitoline Venus (Museo Capitolino, Rome) and the Venus de Medici (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence); it also resembles that of Raphael's Galatea (Villa Farnesina, Rome), a fresco that Renoir admired. The drapery around the figure's legs was intended to evoke the Venus de Milo (Musée du Louvre, Paris), the most celebrated classical sculpture in France; and the figure canon--small breasts and broad hips--is explicitly Hellenistic. Throughout his career, Renoir associated the female nude with classical subject matter and style. Nearly all his early female nudes are of a mythological subject, including Diane chasseresse (Daulte, no. 30; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and Venus et l'amour (Daulte, no. 3; Private Collection), the very first nude which he painted. Furthermore, variations on the pose of the Capitoline Venus and the Venus de Medici also appear in his early paintings, especially La baigneuse au griffon (Daulte, no. 54; Museo de Arte, São Paulo). Renoir continued to be interested in these sculptures until the end of his career, and around 1910 he made an etching of a nude in the same pose.
The lighting and color of the present picture are also worthy of note. Renoir's paintings of the 1880s are distinguished from his earlier works by their lighter and warmer tone. This luminosity is one of the outstanding features of such masterpieces of the period as La baigneuse blonde (Daulte, no. 387; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts), Filette au cerceau (Daulte, no. 470; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and Baigneuse assise (fig. 3). Several factors contributed to Renoir's move to a lighter palette. One was his visit to Italy in 1881. As he wrote to Madame Charpentier:
I studied the museum in Naples alot, the paintings from Pompeii
are extremely interesting from all points of view, and so I stay
in the sun, not to do portraits in broad daylight, but by warming up and doing alot of looking, I will, I think, have gained that
grandeur and simplicity of ancient painters. Raphael, who didn't work outdoors, had nevertheless studied sunlight since his
frescoes are so full of it. Thus having seen the outdoors so
much, I ended up seeing only the great harmonies without caring
anymore about small details that extinguish sunlight instead of
making it blaze. (Quoted in B.E. White, op. cit., p. 115)
French painters of the eighteenth-century, especially Boucher and Fragonard, also influenced Renoir in this respect. As we have already seen, Renoir associated his return to a "sweet and light way of painting" with his study of these masters.
The variegated, polychrome background of the present work, with its pale blues and greens, is typical of Renoir's most attractive paintings from this era. It is like that of such famous masterpieces of the 1880s as Filette au cerceau and La baigneuese blonde. The pigments are applied in areas of allied color, and the brushwork is open and active. Emile Verhaeren, a Belgian critic and poet, praised Renoir's brushwork and palette in 1885:
Renoir's brush is superb. His art is most certainly of French
lineage. He is descended from the magnificent eighteenth century, when Watteau, Fragonard, Greuze, Madame Vigée-Lebrun, Angelica
Kauffmann, and Drouais were producing works of marvelous
inventiveness. The resonant and high-pitched quality of his
color, however, is more reminiscent of that great genius Eugène Delacroix. (Quoted in ibid., p. 155)
The identity of the figure and her setting and narrative context are not specified; nor is it clear whether the painting represents a contemporary event or a scene from mythology. Ambiguity of this kind is rare in Renoir's oeuvre; it is a feature almost exclusively of his paintings of bathers. Here, it adds to the picture's appearance of timelessness and ideality, making it more suggestive and poetic.
(fig. 1) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Les grandes baigneuses, 1884-1887
Museum of Art, Philadelphia
(fig. 2) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Baigneuse, 1887
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts
(fig. 3) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Baigneuse assise, 1883-1884
Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts