During the 1880s, following Renoir's watershed voyage to Italy, the female nude replaced modern life as his principal, defining subject. In his oil paintings of the nude, which include some of his most ambitious canvases of the decade, he pursued an increasingly classicizing, timeless conception of art: bodies are weighty and sculptural, poses are stable and monumental, and outdoor settings are generalized and idyllic. In a series of some fifteen pastels, by contrast, Renoir gave himself the liberty to explore more intimate and ephemeral aspects of this venerable theme. In Le torse nu, one of the most fully worked pastels in the group, he depicts a youthful brunette turning to face the viewer, her heavy lids and sidelong gaze alluring and provocative, her skin and hair momentarily catching the light. The golden ground suggests an interior setting, and the dark blue passage in the lower right reads as the shadow of the model's torso on the wall. Her arms are raised to adjust the thick mane of hair that falls down her back, playing upon the erotic connotations of both extravagantly long, undone hair and the private feminine ritual of the coiffure. One of Renoir's most important canvases from 1885, the same year as the present pastel, depicts a full-length seated bather with her arms in almost the identical pose (Daulte, no. 492; Dauberville, no. 1329; fig. 1). In overall effect, however, the two works differ dramatically. The model's nude form is fleshy and warm in the pastel, cool and marble-like in the oil; her pose appears momentary and life-like in the present work, still and enduring in the painted version. In place of an intimate boudoir setting, the bather in the oil painting is positioned outdoors, in a timeless and remote seaside milieu (although the canvas was certainly executed in the studio, like the pastel). Most notably, rather than turning to meet the viewer's gaze, coquettish and enticing as she is here, the model is seen in the painting only from the rear, distant and inaccessible.
Renoir first began to experiment with pastel in the mid-1870s, shortly after Manet and Degas, and his interest in the medium intensified during the following decade. In contrast to his drawings, which he exhibited infrequently, he considered his pastels an integral part of his oeuvre and regularly showed them in public (for example, at the First and Second Impressionist Exhibitions, the 1879 and 1880 Salons, and his solo exhibitions at La Vie Moderne in 1879 and Durand-Ruel in 1883). He rarely employed pastel for his formal portrait commissions, however, reserving the medium for works in which the sitters were friends or family (and almost exclusively young women and children, whom he saw as particularly appropriate subjects for the delicate, luminous effects of pastel). The model for the present pastel was very likely Suzanne Valadon, who frequently posed for Renoir during the mid-1880s; her rounded features, pearly pink skin, snub nose, and full bee-stung lips represent a physiognomic type that the artist favored throughout his career. Valadon appears in La danse à la ville and La danse à Bougival from 1882-1883 (Daulte, nos. 438 and 440; Dauberville, nos. 1000 and 1001; Musée d'Orsay, Paris, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), in two portraits and two semi-clad scenes of coiffure from 1883-1887 (Daulte, nos. 444 and 491; Dauberville, nos. 1200, 1301, 1159 and 1169; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Christie's, New York, 8 May 2000, lot 43), and as one of the pair of principal bathers in the Grandes baigneuses of 1887 (Daulte, no. 514; Dauberville, no. 1292, Philadelphia Museum of Art). François Daulte has explained, "If he frequently used that medium to depict those near and dear to him, it was because pastel, which combines color with line, gave him the possibility of working rapidly to capture in all their vividness the rapid flash of intelligence and the fleeting show of emotion" (Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Watercolors, Pastels, and Drawings in Color, London, 1959, p. 10).
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Baigneuse (La Coiffure), 1885. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.
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