In 1885, Renoir painted several seated nudes which would culminate in the seminal work of the period, Les grandes baigneuses (Philadelphia Museum of Art). In a letter to Durand-Ruel, Renoir conveyed a new-found confidence in the treatment of this subject, while also trying to explain to the dealer his new vision, which had caused a drop in sales:
My work is quite different from the last landscapes and that dull portrait of your daughter. More like the woman fishing or the woman with a fan, but with a subtle difference given by a tone that I was looking for and which I have found at last. 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. (L. Venturi, Les archives de l'impressionnisme, Paris, 1939, vol. I, pp. 131-132)
While his patrons showed some consternation towards the artist's change of direction, the poet and critic Emile Verhaeren appreciated Renoir's understanding of the treatment of flesh tones:
The painter who is attracting the most vehement notice after Monet is a figure painter: Renoir. All the refinements and unflagging enthusiasm that the former applies to capturing the subtlest tones of nature in broad daylight... Renoir employs in the rendering of flesh tints. Here too, is an utterly new vision, a quite unexpected interpretation of reality to solicit our imagination. Nothing is fresher, more alive and pulsating with blood and sexuality, than these bodies and faces as he portrays them. Where have they come from, those light and vibrating tones that caress arms, necks and shoulders, and give a sensation of soft flesh and porousness? The backgrounds are suffusions of air and light; they are vague because they must not distract us.
Renoir's subjects are women, and especially young girls. His brush is superb at capturing their ingenuousness and chastity-the blossom becoming a flower. 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. The resonant and high-pitched quality of his color, however, is more reminiscent of that great genius, Eugène Delacroix. (G. Muehsam, ed., French Painters and Paintings from the Fourteenth Century to Post-Impressionism: A Library of Art Criticism, New York, 1970, pp. 511-512)
The model for Nu assis may well be the standing figure to the right in Les grandes baigneuses, while the pose is identical (in reverse) to that of Baigneuse (collection), including the towel raised to the right breast.
(fig. 1) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Baigneuse, 1884-1885, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo.