The Wildenstein Institute will include this painting in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, established from the archives of François Daulte, Durand-Ruel, Venturi, Vollard and Wildenstein.
Guy-Patrice and Michel Dauberville have confirmed that this painting is included in their Bernheim-Jeune archives as an authentic work.
Renoir was among the greatest of Impressionist portraitists and his superiority in the field was widely acknowledged, even in his own day. In 1878 Théodore Duret stated that "Renoir excels at portraiture" and other critics called him a "portraitiste éminent". Portraiture was at the center of his oeuvre, more fundamental to his artistic achievement than even the nude.
Painted in 1888, La lecture exemplifies characteristic components of Renoir's style as a portrait painter. The composition is pyramidal and centralized, lending it a classic and harmonic structure. The distinguishing luminosity of Renoir's portraits is present as well, even striking a contrast with contemporary portraiture. One need only compare Renoir with Manet or Bazille to note the difference. Renoir virtually eliminated black from the palette, using blue and lavender instead to create light and shadow, resulting in high-valued luminosity.
The distinctive radiance of Renoir's palette is owed in part to his response to French Rococo painting. Renoir adored the 18th century masters Watteau, Fragonard and Boucher. In an 1885 letter to Paul Durand-Ruel, Renoir conveyed this newfound confidence in the treatment of his subject while also trying to explain to the dealer his new vision, which had caused a drop in sales:
It's not so much new as a continuation of eighteenth-century painting. I don't mean the very best, of course, but I am trying to give you a rough idea of this new (and final) style of mine. (A sort of inferior Fragonard) Please understand that I'm not comparing myself to an eighteenth century master, but it's important to try to explain to you the direction I'm moving in. These painters, who didn't seem to be working from nature, knew more about it than we do (quoted in L. Venturi, Les archives de l'impressionnisme, Paris, 1939, vol. I, pp. 131-132).
And in 1885 Emile Verhaeren, a Belgian poet and critic, echoed these sentiments in praising Renoir's brushwork and palette:
Renoir's brushwork is superb. His art is most certainly of French lineage. He is descended from the magnificent eighteenth-century, when Watteau, Fragonard, Greuze, Madame Vigée-Lebrun, Angelica Kauffmann, and Drouais were producing works of marvelous inventiveness (quoted in B.E. White, Renoir, His Life, Art and Letters, New York, 1984, p. 155).
While the identity of the sitter has not been established, she bears an unmistakable likeness to the standing bather at right in the contemporaneous painting, Les grandes baigneuses (fig.1). With her gently upturned nose, bee-stung lips and chestnut hair, similarly pulled back into a single braid and tied with the same red ribbon, her features are nearly identical.
Among the renowned collectors who once owned this work, including Abbé Gauguin, was Dr. Georges Viau. Admired for his connoisseurship as well as the friendships he developed with many of the artists whose work he collected, Viau's collection was considered to have been a concentrated ensemble representing an exhaustive history of Impressionism. Among masterpieces by Cassatt, Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Morisot and Pissarro was La lecture, one of fifteen works by Renoir in Dr. Viau's collection, dispersed posthumously in a series of three sales held in December 1942, February 1943 and June 1948.
(fig. 1) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Les grandes baigneuses, 1884-1887. Philadelphia Museum of Art.