This pastel will be reproduced in the Renoir catalogue raisonné from François Daulte being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute.
Pastel portraits of women were extremely popular in late 19th century France. Renoir's interest in the use of pastel derived from his veneration of 18th century French art, and in particular of Jean-Antoine Watteau's mastery of the technique. Buste de femme, while showing a debt to the Rococco master, displays an updated and modern approach in the handling of this medium. With short strokes he masterfully depicts this young woman's meditative gaze and radiant complexion, her form dissolving into the luminously abstract background. Indeed, Renoir was known to have often chosen his models based on how their skin captured the light. Delacroix's influence, which Renoir often acknowledged, is also evident, and reveals itself in the softness of modeling and bold coloring throughout. Renoir worked the surface densely with free and spontaneous strokes to create a rich, velvety texture. His sensual rendering of her features and clothing, combined with an air of contemplative detachment in her gaze, perfectly captures Renoir's feeling towards his subject.
Théodore Duret wrote in an 1878 pamphlet on the Impressionists:
Renoir 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 are charming, supple and unrestrained, making flesh transparent and tinting the cheeks and lips with a perfect living hue. Renoir's women are enchantresses (quoted in B. E. White, Renoir: His Life, Art and Letters, New York, 1984, p. 84).
Renoir's rendering of the young girl in this portrait also shows the influence of his sojourn in Italy in 1881. He became fond of showing his female sitters in the half-length, three-quarter pose which he observed in portraits by the Renaissance masters.
At the end of his life Renoir told his son, Jean, "What is certain is that since my trip to Italy [in 1881] I've been working away at the same problems" (quoted in J. House, "Renoir's Worlds," Renoir, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1985, p. 15). Certainly one of the most important of these was his depiction of women, for Renoir believed that "in literature as well as in painting, talent is shown only by the treatment of the feminine figure" (ibid., p. 16).