In 1908 Pierre-Auguste Renoir began work at Les Collettes, his home in Cagnes, on a painting that was to depict the story of the Judgment of Paris. He returned to the subject in 1913 (coll. Hiroshima Museum of Art), this time including the figure of the winged god Mercury and a small Greek temple. Bernheim-Jeune records the present painting as an esquisse for the 1913 composition. There also exists a study drawn in red and white chalk (coll. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.) and a lithograph of the same subject (Delteil; Stella no. 51). The 1913 painting became the basis for the 1914-1916 sculpture Venus Victorieux (Haesaerts, no. 6), which Richard Guino executed from Renoir's design. In 1915-1916 Renoir and Guino collaborated on a bas-relief of the Judgment of Paris (see lot 215).
According to Roman mythology, the goddesses Minerva, Juno and Venus each claimed the rights to a golden apple that Discordia threw down in anger after discovering that she had been excluded from the marriage party of Peleus and Thetis. The golden apple was inscribed "to the fairest" and the three goddesses appealed to Jupiter to settle the matter. Jupiter, however, refused to decide and instead sent them to Mount Ida where it befell the young Phrygian shepherd Paris to make the selection. The goddesses attempted to influence his choice. When he finally selected Venus, he provoked the ire of the others and he was forced to flee to Sparta. There, Paris became enchanted with Helen, the wife of King Menelaus. The two later eloped to Troy, setting the stage for the Trojan War that would last ten years.
Throughout the history of art this story has served as inspiration to artists. It has appeared in sources as varied as a 7th century BC ivory comb found in Sparta, Homer's epic poem The Iliad, 1st century AD Pompeiian wall paintings, late 15th century manuscripts by Raoul Lefebres and Renaissance paintings by Raphael and Rubens. The composition of Renoir's esquisse suggests two possible Renaissance sources: a painting by Peter Paul Rubens (coll. Museo del Prado, Madrid) that Renoir saw in Madrid in 1892, and an engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi (coll. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), an artist whose engravings were widely used for their classical poses by artists such as Edgar Degas and Paul Cézanne, as well as designers of ceramics and other decorative arts. In Marcantonio's engraving, Paris is shown naked, kneeling in the lower left corner of the composition with his arm extended to hand the golden apple to Venus, who is also portrayed disrobed. However, in the esquisse, Renoir has removed the other pagan figures present in Marcantonio's version to heighten the visual impact and drama of the narrative.
Subtle differences between the esquisse and the final 1913 composition are also evident. The 1913 painting portrays Venus, flanked on either side by Minerva and Juno, with Paris clothed in a shepherd's tunic and cap; furthermore, it portrays the event in the story when the three goddesses await Paris's judgment. The esquisse, however, places the focus on the moment that follows, when Paris has made his selection and presents the apple to Venus. Both Paris and Venus are portrayed nude and in the foreground, while the other figures are shown receding in the distance. The artist's son, Jean Renoir, recalls his father working on the painting: "When he undertook to paint his Judgment of Paris he first had the actor Pierre Daltour pose for the young shepherd. But in spite of Daltour's fine athletic body, he finished the painting by using Gabrielle, La Boulangère [Marie Dupuis], and [Georgette] Pigeot in turn as models for the shepherd, saying he felt more at ease with them" (in My Father, New York, 2001, p. 334). The loose brushwork in the esquisse underscores the dream-like quality of the scene. Tamar Garb notes, "In Renoir's images of the nude the very painterliness of his technique with its lack of differentiation of texture, fuses the body of woman with the vegetation that surrounds her. The female body dissolves into the landscape, becoming yet another natural phenomenon in a natural paradise" ("Renoir and the Natural Woman," The Oxford Art Journal, 1985, vol. 8, no. 2).