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.
We are grateful to Guy-Patrice and Michel Dauberville for confirming that this painting is included in their Bernheim-Jeune archives as an authentic work.
Women are the most frequent subject in Renoir's painting. Renoir appreciated women for their beauty above all else-he was an unabashed sensualist. Although he portrayed modern, fashionable figures, he had a continuous interest in the female nude. By the end of his life, he was concentrating much energy and time on this subject. Indeed, as Renoir slowly turned away from scenes of the contemporary world, the men in his paintings disappeared, leaving the stage to monumental nudes, which he treated in a deepening dialogue with tradition.
From the beginning of the 1880s, Renoir traveled a great deal, to North Africa and the Mediterranean coast, and then to the great museums in Madrid, Amsterdam, Dresden, and London. The impact of these explorations was reflected in the increasingly fluid technique of his work, which owes much to Titian and Rubens. By 1904, the year he painted Grande baigneuse aux jambs croisées, he had consolidated these techniques. He had achieved master status in his own right, and was acknowledged as one of the leading artists of his time. He accepted the Legion d'Honneur in 1900. The consummate 20th century modernist critic Clement Greenberg analyzed the artist's late style: "In the last decades of his life Renoir won through to a new handling of the three-dimensional form. He achieved this in two ways: by throwing the entire emphasis of his color on warmth--his adherence to the bas-relief organization of the picture, in which solid forms were lined up on a single frontal, therefore advancing, place (as in Titian), permitted him to do this with plausibility--and by modeling throughout with white highlights and correspondingly light and translucent coppery reds and silvery grays. It is above all to this high-keyed, aerated modeling that Renoir owes the triumph of his later nudes, portraits, and figure compositions. Paradoxically, it was by dint of becoming more sculpture, after having at last tried his hand at actual sculpture, that he joined the Venetians and Rubens on the heights of painterly painting" (in Art and Cultural Critical Essays, Boston, 1961, pp. 47-48.)
In Grande baigneuse aux jambs croisées, there is a distinct sense of voluptuous tactility, both in the nude's flesh, the drapery and in the lushness of the background, which is due to Renoir's adroit handling of tonal gradations and modeling. The pale colors accented by splashes of crimson and viridian are typically present as in the best of Renoir's late work. The shadows on the nude's left buttock and leg lend her a sculptural quality, and she seems particularly solid in comparison to the diaphanous, unspecified background. In fact, as Greenberg also noted, Renoir began creating sculpture late in life. Although his first collaborative sculptures were not completed until 1907, the artist was clearly thinking of such qualities earlier in the century, and it seems that the sculptural medium was simply an extension of this interest in the corporeality of his ideal female nude. Venus Victorious (Haessaerts, no. 6), a sculpture from 1914, is an excellent example of Renoir's three-dimensional classicization of form. Holding her drapery in one hand and an apple in the other, this monumental nude recalls the biblical Eve or, even more, the classical Aphrodite of the Judgement of Paris. Appearing strong and solid, her pose and averted eyes also lend her an air of vulnerability, also present in the painting.
Renoir's interest in the female nude dated from early in his career. In 1870, Renoir showed La baigneuse au griffon (fig. 1) at the Salon, a painting that combines elements of both classical and modern form. The woman modestly covers herself and looks off to the side, reflecting the pose's original source, the Aphrodite of Cnidus. Modern clothing trails from her right hand to the floor, evoking classical drapery. A small, fashionable little dog lays on the discarded clothes, and an incongruent head of a woman is seen in the middle right, all of which recall the work of Manet, who had already caused Salon scandals with Dejeuner sur l'herbe (1863; Musée d'Orsay, Paris) and Olympia (1863; Musée d'Orsay, Paris). While the robust, abundant body types of Renoir's nudes are similar in his earlier La baigneuse au griffon and the later Grande baigneuse aux jambs croisées, the latter's lack of reference to the modern world lend a timeless, eternal air. In addition, the nude in the present painting is much closer to the viewer, allowing more intimate access to her relaxed demeanor.
Painted in his old age, such eternally youthful nudes as Grande baigneuse aux jambs croisées may be a metaphor for the artist's own failing health and slowly waning vitality. As Barbara Ehrlich White wrote, "Like figures painted by the aged Titian or Rubens, these nudes of late 1904 through 1906 capture a powerful sexuality, a metaphor for life itself in the contrast between the artist's physical deterioration and his figure's increased sensuality. He compensated for his own sickness, emaciation, and paralysis by brilliantly expressing health, corpulence, and vitality. His powerfully optimistic nudes express his resilient defiance" (Renoir: His Life, Art and Letters, New York, 1984, p. 228). Not only do his nudes exude an earthy sensuality, they also evoke a universal type, residing in a seemingly harmonious and paradisical realm outside of time and place, in a state of absolute ripeness, sensual fulfillment and delight. The unspecified background of Grande baigneuse aux jambs croisées evokes a natural, fertile environment, an idealization of the Mediterranean landscape. Camille Mauclair, a contemporary critic, wrote in 1912: "Renoir's woman comes from a primitive dreamland; she is an artless, wild creature, blooming in perfumed scrub" (quoted in Renoir, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1985, p. 273). Significantly, from 1902, a prolonged illness caused Renoir to spend much of his time in the sunlit arcadia of the South of France, which has since become recognized for its moderating and classicizing affect on work of the modern artists, including Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso. In 1907, Renoir bought the property of Collettes at Cagnes-sur-mer, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Renoir's late nudes are especially significant for the relationship they describe with the art of the past, and the subject may be seen as the culmination of the artist's search for and ultimate realization of his artistic heritage. Renoir was constantly referencing Courbet, not only in the bodies and poses of his nudes, but also in the somber coloring and grand scale of earlier works such as in La baigneuse au griffon (fig. 1). He also spent many hours in the Louvre looking at Rococo artists such as Boucher, Fragonard, and Watteau; he hoped to create the same effervescent air in his own painting. Renoir was more importantly influenced by Rubens and Titian, and he in fact created a painting in 1913 that clearly references Ruben's famous early Judgement of Paris (circa 1597-9; National Gallery, London, fig. 2). Above all, he took pleasure in the rich, supple curves of the nudes of the past and of the women in his own paintings, giving thanks for these figures whom "the gods had spared those horrible sharp angles" (quoted in G. Adriani, Renoir. Gemälde 1860-1917, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Tübingen, 1996, p. 298). Moreover, while Renoir had long been interested in classical precedents, his work of the early 20th century also corresponds with a renewed interest in classical ideas among the artistic literary avant-garde.
Artistic interest in the female nude certainly did not conclude with Renoir's late work, and looking forward into the late 20th century, his figures have been compared with those of Picasso, especially in the latter's Neo-classical paintings, and in the late work. In fact, Picasso and Renoir enjoyed a dialogue in 1919, the year of Renoir's death, and the younger artist owned several Renoirs. Picasso also drew from a photograph a poignant portrait of the aged artist in 1919 (private collection). Picasso's Neo-Classical nudes, related to the cultural "return to order" after the war, carry the solid presence and monumentality of Renoir's figures even further (fig. 3). Referencing even more recent manifestations of the female nude in the Western tradition, Charles Stuckey compares Renoir's work to the "great decorative women of Matisse and de Kooning" (in Art in America, March 1986, p. 108). Robert Rosenblum has summed up the relevance of Renoir's late nudes in the contemporary world:
"Renoir seemed to sail along on the tidal wave of epic Western traditions, in the direct lineage of Titian, of Rubens, and above all, of that 18th century domain of Rococo hedonism, a world of leisure, of spectacle, of simple, sensual arousal and fulfillment which he could translate effortlessly into the painting of a 19th century experience both real and imaginary. Any artist after the ancien régime who makes us believe that Watteau's fêtes galantes, Boucher's nymphs and Fragonard's swings can be resurrected in the modern world has wrought miracles, and should earn, as I now see it, not only the love he has always had from the public at large, but an eternal throne in the pantheon of great painters and great dreamers" (in Art in America, March 1986, p. 116).
(fig. 1) Auguste Renoir, La baigneuse au griffon, 1870. Museu de Arte de São Paulo. BARCODE 25240146
(fig. 2) Auguste Renoir, Judgement of Paris, c. 1913-14. Hiroshima Museum of Art. BARCODE 25240139
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Grande baigneuse, 1921. Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris. Copyright 2007 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York BARCODE 25240122