In 1889, when Renoir painted Nu debout, he was living with Aline Charigot and their four-year old son Pierre. Since the artist was spending more and more time in the country with his family, he depicted fewer scenes of typically urban bourgeois leisure and instead focused on painting Aline, Pierre, washerwomen, and nudes, almost always in an outdoor setting. In December of 1888, he wrote to Eugène Manet, Berthe Morisot's husband and Edouard Manet's brother, "I'm becoming more and more of a countryman. I'm returning reluctantly to Paris, where the stiff necks forgotten for months are going to start getting on my nerves again, but I'm not planning to stay there long enough to resume those sufferings. The blue sea and the mountains attract me constantly" (quoted in B.E. White, Renoir: His Life, Art and Letters, New York, 1984, p. 186).
Renoir painted Nu debout during his important foray into the bathers theme during the 1880s. This interest culminated in the monumental Baigneuses of 1887 (fig. 1), cast in Renoir's fully Ingresque style, in which he began to work in 1885. Drawing began to play an important role during this period in the artist's working methods, and for Baigneuses he completed numerous preparatory drawings in order to achieve a more linear style. The figures in that painting have very clear outlines, contrasting sharply with the more fluid, although still representational, background. Nu debout shows a similar separation of figure and ground, although the sense of space is less refined and, in fact, ambiguous. The erect pose of Nu debout, seen from behind with her buttocks revealed, evokes Ingres' Bather of Valpinçon, 1808 (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Ingres often distorted the anatomy of his nudes, such as in La Grande Odalisque, 1814 (Musée du Louvre, Paris), whose long, attenuated torso is often remarked upon. Renoir has introduced a similar freedom in depicting the female form in Nu debout.
Nu debout also anticipates Renoir's eventual move away from this Ingresque style in 1888-89. Here he has eschewed the somewhat stilted, unnatural positions seen in Baigneuses and done away with the more naturalistic elements in the landscape. Indeed, the background in the present painting is much less specific than that of Philadelphia Baigneuses, and while the fluid mixture of green, yellows, blues, and pinks evokes a natural setting, the individual natural elements--trees, grass, flowers--have been rendered in a very general way. The return to a more typically free and varied Impressionist brushstroke is the most noteworthy change, seen here, pointing to his move away from the more structured and tautly elaborated compositions of the mid 1880s.
The subject of bathers has a long lineage, and Renoir had become deeply interested in tradition and artistic precedents. Courbet was a strong influence, and the central figure in his famous Baigneuses, 1853 (Musée Fabre, Montpellier) is strikingly similar to Renoir's Nu debout. Courbet's nude holds her drapery right below her buttocks and faces away from the viewer, although her gestures are much more dramatic. In an interview late in life, Henri Matisse recalled a conversation he had with Renoir. When Matisse asked the older artist why he kept reworking a scene of bathers, Renoir replied that there was not enough Courbet in it. Renoir, Matisse maintained, was searching for the same unity of the painted surface that he found and loved in Courbet (in A. de Butler, ed., Ecrits, entretiens et lettres sur l'art, Paris, 2002, p. 218).
Renoir also followed Cézanne's work on the bathers theme. In fact, Renoir worked with Cézanne in 1882 at L'Estaque and then in 1885 at La Roche-Guyon. In 1885, Cézanne made Renoir a gift of his painting Un tournant dans la route à La Roche-Guyon, 1885 (Rewald no. 539; Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton). Renoir eventually acquired four paintings and two watercolors by his colleague. He may also have worked with Cézanne at Jas de Bouffan in 1895. While they quarreled later that year, Renoir did speak favorably of Cézanne's recent work shown at Vollard's gallery: "There is something similar to the things from Pompeii, so rough and admirable" (Renoir, exh. cat., Haywood Gallery, London, 1985, p. 307). He was apparently discussing Cézanne's recent bathers. While Renoir's bathers possess a sweetness and lyricism that Cézanne's do not, he was certainly aware of Cézanne's interests, and the sweeping lines of the back and buttocks of Nu debout are reminiscent of some Cézanne bathers shown from the rear, such as the standing figure at the right in Quatre Baigneuses, 1888-90 (fig. 2). Renoir also admired Cézanne's use of color, marveling at how every touch of color on a Cézanne canvas was wholly successful.
Degas too is also famous for his bathers. They are, however, often distinctly modern women, depicted in interior spaces. Degas was very interested in showing his nudes in unusual poses, often viewed from the rear--dressing, stepping into or out of the bath, or simply stretching. In Femme s'essuyant (fig. 3), he depicts a rare outdoor scene, dominated by greens and yellows with a sinuous tree at the upper right. This freely drawn, vibrating, and brilliantly chromatic background is similar to that in Nu debout, and employs a similar separation of figure and ground. Unlike Courbet, Cézanne, and Degas, however, Renoir did not depict any abrupt or novel figural movements in Nu debout, lending his bather a timelessly tranquil air, seemingly detached from ordinary reality.
A question preoccupied Renoir from the mid to late 1880s: "How could he reconcile the direct study of nature with his desire to belong to an artistic tradition and combine the definition of form with the free play of colored brushstroke?" (in Renoir, op. cit., p. 250). In Nu debout, Renoir was well on his way resolving this question, having depicted a traditional nude in a new and personal style.
Nu debout was originally in the collection of Jorgen Breder Stang (1874-1950), the son of an Oslo timber merchant, who built his fortune in shipping, and transporting timber and passengers between Europe and the Americas. Stang's chief passion, however, was art. He began to buy pictures and sculpture early in his career and, as his collection grew, he showed great generosity to the Nasjonalgalleriet in Oslo. As well as donating works from his collection by Renoir and Harald Sohlberg, Stang was president of the gallery's Friends between 1923-1933 and the founding director of the French Art Association from 1919 to 1931.
(fig. 1) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Baigneuses, 1887. Philadelphia Museum of Art. BARCODE 25240375
(fig. 2) Paul Cézanne, Quatre baigneuses, 1888-90. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. BARCODE 25240368
(fig. 3) Edgar Degas, Femme s'essuyant, 1885. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. BARCODE 25240153
(fig. 4) A wall of J.B. Stang's salon in his Oslo home, showing at the center and right three of his Cézannes (Rewald nos. 621, 713 and 747) and at the upper left another of his Renoirs. BARCODE 25239829