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.
‘In Renoir’s figure painting, portraiture deserves a place unto itself. For no other artist has looked so deeply into his sitter’s soul, nor captured its essence with such economy.’
(Georges Rivière, 1925, in C.B. Bailey, exh. cat., Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting, New York, p. 1)
Painted in 1881, Femme au chapeau is one of a number of portraits of fashionable young women by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. One of the most celebrated and prolific portraitists of Impressionism, Renoir painted the wealthy, social elite of Paris in commissioned paintings, as well as his family, friends and anonymous models whom he adorned in the latest Parisian fashions, as shown in the present work. Here, Renoir has revelled in the play of light and colour, depicting his youthful subject with softly feathered brushwork and gentle gradations of colour. Against the rapidly rendered, painterly background, the dark blue of the girl’s hat and dress contrasts with her fair complexion, making it seem all the more luminous. Her golden hair is just visible under the short brim of her hat, framing her heart shaped face, and highlighting the hint of blush on her cheeks and softly pouted lips as she gazes out to meet the viewer’s eyes. An image of enchanting intimacy and tender charm, this painting not only demonstrates Renoir’s innate skill at capturing the female form, but also encapsulates his novel form of impressionist portraiture.
The son of a tailor, throughout his life Renoir had a rapt fascination with fashion and was enchanted by the visual pageantry of costume displayed in modern Paris. He had a particular predilection for the decorative, often elaborate women’s hats that were the height of fashion at this time. Drawn to the compelling femininity that these accessories conveyed, he also relished the elaborate folds, colours, fabrics and textures of these extravagant headpieces. His interest in millinery is well documented. Suzanne Valadon, an artist who occasionally modelled for Renoir in the early 1880s, reminisced that, ‘Renoir particularly loved women’s hats. He put heaps of them on my head… He took me to the milliners’ shops; he never ceased buying lots of hats’ (S. Valadon, quoted in J. House & M. Lucy, Renoir in the Barnes Foundation, New Haven & London, 2012, p. 245). The artist not only bought hats for his models but also delighted in designing them himself, so as to enhance their artistic interest; later, in 1895, Berthe Morisot’s daughter, Julie Manet, recalled that Renoir showed her ‘a portrait of a model with a ravishing hat made of white muslin with a rose on it, which he himself had made’ (J. Manet, quoted in ibid., p. 245).
At the time that he painted Femme au chapeau, Renoir had become something of a chronicler of Parisian style. His great patron of the late 1870s and early 1880s, the publisher Georges Charpentier, had, in 1879, founded a magazine dedicated to fashion called La Vie Moderne. Renoir quickly offered his services to provide sketches and drawings of the latest Parisian fashions. He wrote excitedly that summer, ‘One can make arrangements with milliners and dressmakers. Hats one week, dresses the next. I’ll go to their premises to make the drawings from life from all angles’ (Renoir, quoted in C.B. Bailey, exh. cat., Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting, New York, 2012, p. 145). Depicting his youthful model in an elegant navy dress and matching hat, Femme au chapeau demonstrates this enthusiastic and ardent love of fashion. When, in the autumn of 1881, he travelled to Italy for the first time, the artist ruefully wrote from Venice that he was missing Paris ‘with its pretty women’s hats’ (Renoir, ibid., p. 145). Indeed, at the time he painted Femme au chapeau, Renoir was working on a number of other multi-figural paintings that also depict women sporting sophisticated promenading dresses and elegant hats. Both Les Parapluies (c. 1881-1885, National Gallery, London) and Deux jeunes filles en noir (1881, Pushkin Museum, Moscow) demonstrate Renoir’s love of this theme, the latter depicting a woman wearing a near identical costume and hat to the model in Femme au chapeau.
More than documenting the ever-changing trends in female style, however, Renoir’s portraits of young women allowed him to revel in his desire to convey the physical presence of the model herself. Often quoted as stating that he wanted to make the viewers of his paintings feel as if they could reach out and ‘stroke a breast or a back’ (Renoir, quoted in J. House, ‘Renoir’s Worlds’, in exh. cat., Renoir, London, Paris & Boston, 1985-6, p. 16), Renoir wanted the figures of his paintings to evoke a sense of touch; ‘What goes on inside my head doesn’t interest me’, he once exclaimed, ‘I want to touch…or at least to see!’ (Renoir, quoted in L. Gowing, ‘Renoir’s sentiment and sense’, in ibid., p. 32). Renoir achieved this through his modelling. In Femme au chapeau he has depicted the woman’s face with exquisite skill. While her shoulders and bust are rendered with loose, undefined strokes of colour, her physiognomy is depicted with the finest detail, her skin infused with a palpable plumpness and a radiant opalescence that perfectly conveys her youthful vitality and a captivating female allure. As Lawrence Gowing wrote about Renoir’s depiction of the female form, ‘If [Renoir’s] brush defines and records, it is for pleasure, and the shapes it makes, quivering in their pearly veil, discover satisfaction and completeness. One feels the surface of his paint itself as living skin: Renoir’s aesthetic was wholly physical and sensuous, and it was unclouded’ (ibid., p. 32).
Femme au chapeau dates from a moment of transition in Renoir’s career. In 1881, the pioneering impressionist dealer Paul Durand-Ruel began to buy Renoir’s work, an occurrence that enabled the artist to enjoy a certain level of financial security. As a result of this, the artist was able to travel abroad for the first time. In the spring of this year, he set off for North Africa, following in the footsteps of the much-admired romantic artist, Eugène Delacroix. Later, in the autumn, Renoir once more left his native France, this time making an artistic pilgrimage to Italy, where he fell under the spell of the Renaissance masters, particularly the work of Raphael. These trips irrevocably changed Renoir’s technique and his artistic approach; on his return to Paris at the beginning of 1882 he began to paint with a greater sense of firmness and stability, increasingly shunning the spontaneity and rapidity of execution that characterised his earlier impressionist works. Painted at the very beginning of this important stylistic shift, Femme au chapeau demonstrates this new direction. Unlike some of his earlier portraits, the model’s face is finely depicted and clearly demarcated from the painterly background, indicating the artist’s renewed interest in form and volume. This aesthetic would continue to occupy Renoir throughout the 1880s, as he moved away from Impressionism to develop his distinctive and unique pictorial idiom.