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.
With her full, voluptuous figure and delicately rendered tones, the seated nude of Femme s’essuyant represents an important strand in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s art during the last decades of his career, and illustrates many of the principal concerns which occupied Renoir’s art at this time. Painted in 1913, the composition offers an intimate, sensual view of a young woman at her toilette, her body twisting to the left as she reaches down to gently dry her lower leg with a white cloth. Set within an interior space executed with rapid brushstrokes, the sitter’s attention is entirely absorbed in this act, leaving her oblivious to the artist’s observation of her bathing routine. With her vibrant red hair swept up in a loose chignon to avoid the water, she offers the artist an unobstructed view of the elegant curve of her back, drawing the eye from the shimmering green satin of her head band in a direct line down the spine, to her shapely hips and buttocks. Perching precariously on the edge of a low stool, the woman steadies herself against an unused chair in front of her, anchoring herself as she manoeuvers into this position. These elements combine to create a fleeting moment, captured by the artist like a snapshot, before the figure moves and the elegant line of her form changes.
Berthe Morisot, recalling a discussion with Renoir about his fascination with the nude female figure, explained that ‘the nude seemed to him to be one of the most essential forms of art’ (Morisot, quoted in J. House, ‘Renoir: Between Modernity and Tradition,’ in M. Lucy & J. House, eds., Renoir in the Barnes Foundation, New Haven & London, 2012, p. 10). Indeed, Renoir had been occupied by the theme of the nude female bather since the 1890s, painting figures both standing and seated, in interior and exterior locations. Often infused with a heady mixture of eroticism and sensuality, these figures adopted both suggestive and coquettish poses. However, at the turn of the Twentieth Century, the artist moved away from these overtly eroticised depictions to focus on the formal qualities of the body. For the artist, these figures were a means of exploring the relationship of colour, paint and application in the creation of form. Studying the bodies of his undressed female models in a variety of positions, scenarios and guises, the artist developed a keen appreciation of the ways in which varying effects of light and movement could dramatically alter the colour patterns in his subject’s skin. Renoir sought to capture these transient effects in his paintings, and entered a period of prolonged contemplation on the subject from his studio in the idyllic Cagnes-sur-Mer, spanning the years 1908-1919. During this time the artist began to grow increasingly interested in depicting the feel of his sitter’s flesh, and sought a way of expressing a sense of touch through visual means alone. In Femme s’essuyant, Renoir achieves this with a high degree of skill, capturing the warmth and texture of his model’s skin through the subtle layering of opalescent colour, inviting his viewer to contemplate the feel of her body as well as its visual beauty. As he stated of this process of capturing the tactility of his model, ‘I don’t feel a nude is done until I can reach out and pinch it’ (Renoir, quoted in ibid., p. 209).
Colour plays an integral part in the artist’s approach to the modelling of his figure in Femme s’essuyant, articulating the body’s contours with a series of delicate, subtle tonal shifts to achieve a sense of depth in his painting and reveal the architecture of the figure’s body. Using an assemblage of peach, pink, golden yellow, and bluish-purple tones, Renoir’s palette is infused with a lightness that imbues the figure with a distinct luminosity. Describing his aims as a colourist in his painting of flesh tones, Renoir stated, ‘I look at a nude; there are myriads of tiny tints. I must find the ones that will make the flesh on my canvas live and quiver’ (Renoir, quoted in W. Pach, ‘Pierre Auguste Renoir’, in Scribner’s Magazine, vol. 51, issue 5, May 1912, pp. 606-12). The artist’s extensive use of thin layers of paint allowed these ‘tints’ to mix and combine, achieving a lively, vibrant surface which suggests the flutter of living flesh. This texture, combined with the shimmering opalescent nature of the colours, enhances the soft, supple appearance of the woman’s skin, giving it a luscious velvety, quality.
This sensuality is enhanced by the voyeuristic set-up of the scene, as the sitter appears to remain unaware of the artist’s presence, making no eye contact with the painter and continuing with the rituals of her daily ablutions. Her twisting form suggests an unconscious pose, emphasising the fleetingness of the moment, and heightening the impression of the stolen glance. This theme of voyeurism of the female nude has a long tradition within the history of art, and Renoir draws on a number of sources for the present work. For example, the compositional arrangement of Femme s’essuyant contains distinct echoes of Rubens’s Venus before a Mirror, 1614-1615, and Ingres’s La grande baigneuse, 1808, which both observe their bathing female subject from behind, and allow the model’s back to become the dominant focus of the canvas. The painting also calls to mind Edgar Degas’s studies of female bathers, in its attention to the action of bathing itself and its placement of the model in a recognisably modern location. However, Renoir creates a more idealised vision of his subject than Degas, with his figure containing none of the extreme tension or strain visible in many of the latter’s nudes. Indeed, the protagonist in Femme s’essuyant appears completely relaxed, her body at ease, even as her torso twists to accommodate her pose. Renoir’s portrayal thus suggests the potential tranquillity and calming effects of the bather’s ritual, with its slow, methodical movements.