The model for La Jeune fille au sourire is Jeanne Samary who was Renoir's favorite subject from 1877 through 1880. Producing no less than twelve portraits of her in oil, pastel, and MacLean cement, Franois Daulte even identifies her as one of the participants in Le Djeuner des canotiers (1881, Daulte, no. 379, The Phillips Collection, Washington).
Born in Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1857 into one of France's greatest stage families, Jeanne Samary joined the Comdie-Franaise when she was fourteen years old. In 1875 she won the first prize for comedy and debuted in Molire's Tartuffe in the role of Dorinne, rising quickly in the ranks of the theater to become a leading actress. Her private life was no less sensational than her public persona. Her marriage in 1880 to Marie-Joseph Paul Lagarde caused a scandal when his wealthy father challenged it in court. Tragically, she died of typhoid fever ten years later. As testimonial to her popularity her funeral was attended by two thousand mourners at the Eglise Saint-Roch in Paris.
Renoir and Jeanne Samary were most likely introduced by Mr. and Mrs. Georges Charpentier at one of their salon gatherings which brought together the leading painters, actors and writers of the time. Samary first sat for Renoir in 1877. Of the two portraits he did of her that year, he chose Portrait of Jeanne Samary en buste (1877, Daulte, no. 229, Pushkin Museum) to be shown in the Third Impressionist Exhibition that April. Desperate for financial success, Renoir broke from the Impressionist group in 1878 and began to submit works to the Salon for the first time in almost a decade. The following year he sent two paintings to the Salon: Portrait de Mlle. Samary (1878, Daulte, no. 263, The Hermitage) and Mme. Carpenter and Her Children (1878, Daulte, no. 266, The Metropolitan Museum of Art). In a letter dated 27 May 1879 Pissarro wrote: "Renoir has a big success at the Salon, I believe he is launched. So much the better! Poverty is so hard" (Quoted in J. Rewald, The History of Impressionism, New York, 1973, p. 430).
Renoir strove to create a natural, relaxed effect in his portraits. He asked his sitters to present themselves in their normal manner, dressed in the clothes they wore regularly so that the painting would have the "charm of a painting faithful to modern life" (E. H. Turquet quoted in B. E. White, Renoir, his Life, Art and Letters, New York, 1984, p. 84). In La Jeune fille au sourire he sets Jeanne Samary against a neutral background that gives no clue as to her profession or status in society. Her pose is unaffected, her lips slightly parted and her hair uncoiffed. His sensitive portrayal captures not only her celebrated beauty but also her vital spirit. Renoir paints the ranging tones of her flesh so delicately that the portrait appears to breathe life from the canvas. Working with characteristically vivid brushwork, he captures the effect of the light as it reflects on her hair and in her eyes to give the painting the impression of being a free and spontaneous sketch rather than a formal portrait. Theodore Duret wrote of Renoir's portraits, "[he] excels at portraits. Not only does he catch the external features, but through them he pinpoints the model's character and inner self. I doubt whether any painter has ever interpreted woman in a more seductive manner. The deft and lively touches of Renoir's brush are charming, subtle and unrestrained, making flesh transparent and tinting the cheeks and lips with a perfect living hue. Renoir's women are enchantresses..." (T. Duret as reprinted in Histoire des peintres impressionistes, Paris, 1922, pp. 27-28).