Renoir, like his fellow Impressionists Degas and Monet, painted well into the 20th century, against a backdrop of radical upheavals in the arts and society, and in the face of growing personal ills. His hands and legs were crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, which kept him confined to a wheelchair. But unlike Degas and Monet, Renoir's eyesight was as keen as ever, and his son Jean claimed that "his arm was as steady as that of a young man" (in Renoir, My Father, New York, 1958, p. 423).
Renoir was determined to commemorate the end of the First World War in November 1918 by painting a huge canvas, a final masterpiece that he could point to as the culmination of his life's work. This was the Grandes baigneuses, which he finished in early 1919 in a relatively short time (fig. 1). This composition is notable for the way in which figure and landscape have been fused within a flattened, modernist compositional space, an achievement that parallels the great late bather compositions of Cézanne.
The present painting is a study for Grandes baigneuses. It shows Renoir's model, Andrée Heuchling, known as Dédée, reclining in the pose that Renoir used for the upper figure in the final bathers composition. Andrée joined the Renoir household in 1915, when she was sixteen years old. Jean, who married her in 1920, wrote that she was "red-haired, plump, and her skin 'took the light' better than any model that Renoir ever had in his life. Along with the roses, which grew almost wild at Les Collettes, and the great olive trees with their silvery reflections, Andrée was one of the vital elements which helped Renoir to interpret on his canvas the tremendous cry of love he uttered at the end of his life" (ibid, p. 426).
Here, in the autumn of his career, Renoir "could still embody his ideals and fantasies in healthy, relaxed, convivial figures basking in a sunny rural setting. 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). The paintings of this late period proved to be influential on a younger generation of artists and helped turn the course of painting in the aftermath of the First World War. Michael FitzGerald has stated, "There is little doubt that Picasso's Neoclassicism of the early 1920s is substantially based on Renoir's recreation of an Arcadian past" (in Making Modernism, New York, 1995, p. 106).
(fig. 1) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Grandes baigneuses, 1919. Museé d'Orsay, Paris.