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.
‘To seek the charming aspects of nature, the aspects that make us love it, that is Renoir’s aim; his whole oeuvre has this as its goal!’
(G. Rivière, quoted in C. Bailey & C. Riopelle et al., exh. cat., Renoir Landscapes 1865-1883, London, 2007, p. 13)
Renoir very likely painted Canotage à Bougival, an ebullient, sun-dappled scene, in the spring of 1881, soon after returning from an eye-opening two-month trip to Algeria, his first voyage ever outside of France. During his travels, the artist had devoted himself fully to landscape painting, revelling in the dense and luxuriant foliage of palm and banana trees, so exotic and unfamiliar. Back on native soil in mid-April, he settled at Chatou, ‘the prettiest of Parisian suburbs’, as he wrote to Théodore Duret upon his arrival there (Renoir, quoted in C. Bailey & C. Riopelle et al., exh. cat., Renoir Landscapes 1865-1883, London, 2007, p. 234). Situated on the Seine, to the west of Paris, Chatou was a hub for recreational boating, rowing and swimming and had become a popular leisure destination for bourgeois Parisians, complete with picturesque scenery as well as charming restaurants along the river’s edge. With its verdant, tree-lined river banks, open fields and people engaged in myriad leisure pursuits, Chatou and neighbouring Bougival long had attracted Renoir and Monet, both of whom had painted there at intervals since the late 1860s. Seeking to maintain the creative energy that the Algerian vistas had inspired in him, Renoir continued to paint the landscape throughout the spring, seeking out motifs of particular animation and variety. Canotage à Bougival, painted a short distance away from Chatou at picturesque Bougival, is a veritable manifesto of the natural charms and pictorial possibilities that the Seine valley had to offer a plein-air painter.
The focal point of the composition is the Seine itself, its placid waters sparkling beneath the bright midday sun. Harmoniously integrated into the verdant landscape, several figures – probably bourgeois city-dwellers – enjoy the plentiful leisure opportunities that had transformed this region by Renoir’s day into a postcard setting for Sunday outings and longer holidays. Drifting down the middle of the river is a narrow skiff that holds a rower and a single passenger, facing each other companionably. A third figure, jauntily clad in a straw hat, sits in a wide-bottomed rowing boat tied up by the near bank, perhaps awaiting a companion before setting out. In the middle distance, just barely visible, an elegantly dressed woman promenades along the sandy walkway at the water’s edge. Another path enters the composition at the bottom right and leads toward a rustic, wooden gate in the middle ground, inviting the viewer to cross into the self-contained world of the painting and partake of its pleasures.
This foreground path also marks out the spot where Renoir must have set up his easel to depict this lively view, implicitly registering his presence in the landscape. The painting thus bears witness to one of the central tenets of Impressionism: the plein-air master standing outdoors, before nature, rapidly transcribing his immediate sensations. Renoir has employed several different types of brushwork to capture the myriad details of the natural world, differentiating the various zones of the landscape through his nimble touch. Longer strokes render the tall, gently swaying grasses in the foreground, while lighter, more feathery ones depict the young leaves of the green trees. The sun-dappled water is an interweaving pattern of white and blue touches, further animated by short licks of cobalt.
‘It is as if Renoir is responding to each detail in turn,’ Christopher Riopelle has written about a closely related landscape, ‘finding the touch and density of paint that will most convincingly capture the freshness and the specificity of each particular motif. This is an exercise in painterly improvisation in which we see the artist striving to find, as quickly as possible, one imagines, an equivalency between an object in nature and the response it evokes in his mind and eye as his hand moves across the canvas and the springtime sun warms him’ (C. Riopelle, op. cit., 2007, p. 230).
Landscape remained a central pursuit for Renoir throughout his career. Though known primarily for his figurative works, a result in part of his decision to present only works of this type to the annual Salon exhibitions, for Renoir the depiction of the landscape in its purest form offered him a means to experiment more freely with line, colour and form. As a result of this more liberated mode of expression, his works of this genre are often varied in terms of style and paint handling. ‘Landscape is useful for a figure painter,’ Renoir once explained. ‘In the open air, one feels encouraged to put on the canvas tones that one couldn’t imagine in the subdued light of the studio’ (Renoir, quoted in M. Lucy & J. House, Renoir in the Barnes Foundation, New Haven & London, 2012, p. 217). Unlike Monet who sought to convey the topography of a particular location, rendering panoramic cloud-filled skies or the nuanced reflections on water, for example, Renoir was more interested in capturing the overall atmosphere of the natural scene in front of him, a predilection that is exemplified by the shimmering reverie of light and colour that Canotage à Bougival presents.
Renoir painted Canotage à Bougival at a critical moment of transition in his career. Along with Monet, he had been a driving force behind the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874, which introduced the revolutionary formal vocabulary and novel modern-life subjects of the New Painting to the French public. By the latter years of the decade, however, he found himself frustrated with the strategy of independently organized, cooperative exhibitions, which had brought the artists little real success. Attendance was slight, especially in comparison with the annual, state-sponsored Salons, and sales were few and far between. ‘There are scarcely fifteen devotees of art in Paris capable of recognising a painter who is not represented at the Salon,’ Renoir lamented (Renoir, quoted in G. Adriani, exh. cat., Renoir, Tübingen, 1996, p. 37).
In 1878, Renoir decided to alter his commercial course. He exhibited at the Salon that year for the first time since the beginning of the decade, and he initiated a concerted – and ultimately quite successful – effort to become a portraitist to wealthy Parisians. In 1879, he opted not to participate in the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition. Instead, he showed two large society portraits at the Salon, one of the popular actress Jeanne Samary and the other of Madame Georges Charpentier, the wife of the powerful publisher. ‘Renoir is having great success at the Salon,’ Camille Pissarro reported to a mutual friend. ‘I think he is launched, so much the better, poverty is so hard’ (Pissarro, quoted in B.E. White, Renoir: His Life, Art, and Letters, New York, 1984, p. 88).
Renoir’s triumph in 1879 yielded a stream of profitable portrait commissions over the next two years, in which he adopted surprisingly traditional methods to suit the expectations of his well-heeled sitters. He remained an Impressionist at heart, however, at least for the moment, and increasingly rankled under the demands of his new patrons. ‘I’m obliged to go on working at this wretched painting,’ he complained in the autumn of 1880, ‘because of a high-class cocotte who had the impudence to come to Chatou wanting to pose’ (Renoir, quoted in B.E. White, ibid., p. 103). He undertook the trip to Algeria in large part to restore his spirits and revive his art after painting the daughters of the banker Louis Cahen d’Anvers, declaring himself utterly spent by the commission. Moreover, he continued to develop his lively and varied Impressionist technique in paintings destined for the open market, extemporising freely in landscapes such as Canotage à Bougival as a respite from his gruelling portrait practice.
‘The period between 1878 and 1882 has been described as the point when Impressionism reached a crisis,’ Riopelle has concluded. ‘While it is undoubtedly true that the cohesiveness of the group of artists that gave birth to the Impressionist exhibitions was beginning to come apart… looking at the evidence of the paintings Renoir made at this time demonstrates that the artist himself was not experiencing any artistic crisis but was, in fact, making some of the finest landscapes of his career, employing methods first developed in the mid-1870s, albeit pushed to productive extremes’ (C. Riopelle, op. cit., p. 232).
Canotage à Bougival remained in Renoir’s possession for around a decade after he completed it. On 25 August 1891, he sold it to the legendary impressionist dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who was one of the few people to support, both financially and morally, the radical movement from its earliest days. One of Durand-Ruel’s most pioneering strategies was his decision to open an eponymous gallery in New York, therefore presenting Impressionism to an American audience, and he quickly established a keen market for the work of Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and others there. Bought from Durand-Ruel by a wealthy American, Arthur B. Emmons, Canotage à Bougival was, in 1920, acquired by one of the most important collectors of the Twentieth Century: Dr Albert C. Barnes. His collection of modern art remains among the greatest of its kind, featuring innumerable masterpieces by Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso and Renoir. A scientist who amassed a great fortune in the pharmaceutical industry, Barnes began collecting art in 1912, buying the work of Picasso, Van Gogh and Renoir. ‘I am convinced that I cannot get too many Renoirs,’ he wrote to Leo Stein in 1913, ‘and next time I’m in Paris I’m going to go after some more’ (A.C. Barnes, quoted in M. Lucy & J. House, op. cit., p. 21). His interest in Renoir soon developed into a fervent passion. By 1915, he had acquired just under forty works by the artist, writing to Durand-Ruel, ‘It is fair to say that I have spent in purchasing paintings by Renoir the sum of a million and a half francs, and it is my hope to make this collection one of the best in the world’ (A.C. Barnes, quoted in M. Lucy & J. House, ibid., p. 21). This passion grew into an obsession, and by 1920, the year he bought Canotage à Bougival, he had the largest collection of Renoir’s art in the world. Renoir was the artist whom Barnes admired above all others, as he explained in 1914, ‘Renoir has been to me the most all-satisfying of any man’s work I know… Perhaps the thing that most interests me in Renoir, that most strikes a personal response is, what seems to me, his joy in painting the real life of red-blooded people, and his skill in conveying his sensations to my consciousness’ (A.C. Barnes, quoted in M. Lucy & J. House, ibid., p. 33). On the occasion of the artist’s death in 1919, he stated emphatically, ‘For years he has been my God – no religion or no poetry could have so combined value and existence for me’ (A.C. Barnes, quoted in M. Lucy & J. House, ibid., p. 30).