This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue critique of Pierre-Auguste Renoir being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute established from the archives of François Daulte, Durand-Ruel, Venturi, Vollard and Wildenstein.
“I have taken up again, never to abandon it, my old style, soft and light of touch,” Renoir wrote to his dealer Durand-Ruel in 1888, full of enthusiasm for his latest efforts. “This is to give you some idea of my new and final manner of painting–like Fragonard, but not so good” (quoted in J. House, Renoir in the Barnes Foundation, New Haven, 2012, p. 121).
This approach–which represented a sea-change after the controversial, Ingres-inspired method that Renoir had cultivated in mid-decade–plainly informs the present Femme lisant, a softly brushed boudoir scene depicting a young woman absorbed in her reading. The model is clad in a pink corset over a gauzy white shift, which slips from one shoulder to reveal an expanse of creamy skin that catches the light; her dark, glossy hair is pinned up informally in a loose chignon. The pink roses on the wallpaper echo the youthful flush on her cheeks, providing a metaphor for her natural, unstudied beauty. Unlike eighteenth-century images of women reading, which often presented the activity as charged with erotic implications, Renoir’s image is suffused with a hushed and dreamy intimacy.
Reading forms an important recurring motif in Renoir’s oeuvre, despite his professed aversion to all literary influences in visual art. “For me, a painting should be something pleasant, joyous, and pretty,” he insisted, “yes, pretty!” (ibid., p. 16). Books distracted his models from the difficult task of posing at length, allowing him to work without haste. In the present painting, he has depicted the young woman in profile, her head resting contemplatively on one hand as she reads, seemingly unaware of the artist. The harmonious, integrated palette of warm tones–cream, pink, russet, and brown, with just touches of blue for shadow–heightens the effect of a private, self-contained world.
The “new manner” that Renoir described to Durand-Ruel was an immediate success, a most welcome development after the hostile response that his Ingres-inspired Grandes baigneuses had received at Georges Petit. In 1890, secure at last–just months shy of age fifty–that he could support a family, Renoir finally married Aline Charigot, his long-time companion and the mother of his young son Pierre. “I’m in demand again on the market,” the artist wrote contentedly to his friend and patron Paul Berard. “If nothing happens to disturb my work, it will go like clockwork” (quoted in B.E. White, Renoir: His Life, Art, and Letters, New York, 1984, p. 189).
The first recorded owner of the present painting was Henry Bernstein, the popular author of melodramas for the Paris stage and an outspoken critic of anti-Semitism. Manet had painted a portrait of the future dramatist at age five in 1881, and Renoir painted him in 1910 at the height of his stage career as well as his collecting activities. Bernstein sold the present canvas at auction to Durand-Ruel and Paul Cassirer in June 1911, three months after politically motivated riots forced the early closure of his play Après moi; Hunt Henderson’s sister Ellen acquired the painting for the family collection just two years later, in 1913.