This drawing will be reproduced in the Renoir catalogue raisonné from François Daulte being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute.
Renoir frequently used musical instruments as props in his commissioned portraits. Children of bourgeois families were expected to learn the violin or piano, and in the absence of recorded music the latter especially was the chief means of bringing into the home recently published serious music as well as popular music hall songs.
Around 1900 Renoir turned increasingly to classically inspired renderings of pastoral themes, as if to distill from daily family living the essential and timeless aspects of traditional culture in the Midi. The south of France had been the cradle of secular European music -- the legacy of the 12th and 13th century troubadours was still alive in the folk music of the region. Renoir began to depict primitive folk instruments whose origins reached back to medieval times and Roman antiquity. There are guitars and mandolins, flutes and shepherd's pipes, and especially à propos of Renoir's fondness for the rhythms and liveliness of dancing, the tambourine -- the small hand-held frame drum with jingles attached, which entered medieval Europe from the Middle East around the time of the Crusades.
Renoir first depicted a young girl in local costume holding a tambourine in Italienne au tambourin, 1881 (Daulte, no. 383). More than two decades later the tambourine reappears in several paintings and sculptures. In 1909 Renoir painted a pair of large figure-length compositions for the dining room of his friend Maurice Gangnat, Danseuse au tambourin and Danseuse au castanets (coll. The National Gallery, London). The two figures are dressed in Orientalist costumes. Ambroise Vollard illustrates in his Renoir catalogue an oil painting titled Le tambourin, which he also dates 1910 (Vollard, vol. I, no. 99), that shows the upper portion of the Gangnat's Danseuse au tambourin, although the sitter's costume is not described with any detail.
The present drawing is closely related to the latter work, and also clearly shows the essential features of the Gangnat painting. The model in all of these pictures is Gabrielle Renard, a cousin of Renoir's wife Aline; the Renoir family engaged her as a nursemaid in 1894 and she stayed with the family for the next nineteen years. In 1910 she would have been thirty-one years old. Her full, voluptuous figure and round face featured prominently in Renoir's figure paintings throughout this period, and in some measure contributed to the evolving classical stylization that pervades the pictures of this late phase.
The final expression of the tambourine motif occurs in the painting Danseuse nue au tambourin, 1918 (ed. Bernheim-Jeune, no. 671), which served as the basis for two terracotta reliefs which Renoir executed in collaboration with sculptor Louis Morel in the same year. A third relief depicts a young man playing a shepherd's pipe. "It is a moving fact that the very last sculptures of this old man, who was paralyzed and not far from his end, evoked music and the dance" (P. Haesaerts, Renoir Sculptor, New York, 1947, p. 33).