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.
Painted in 1905, Jeune femme arrangeant sa chemise (Femme nue, Louise Bengel) offers an intimate, sensual view of a young woman as she slowly undresses, lowering the sleeves of her light blouse in anticipation of bathing in the cool waters of an unseen outdoor spring or river. With her full, voluptuous figure and velvety, soft skin, this woman represents one of the key obsessions that occupied Pierre-August Renoir during the final three decades of his life – the elegant nude female body. Berthe Morisot, recalling a discussion she had with Renoir about this fascination with the nude female figure, explained that ‘the nude seemed to him to be one of the most essential forms of art’ (Morisot, quoted in J. House, ‘Renoir: Between Modernity and Tradition’, in M. Lucy & J. House, eds., Renoir in the Barnes Foundation, New Haven & London, 2012, p. 10). Indeed, Renoir had begun to explore the theme of the nude female bather in the 1880s, and returned again and again to the subject throughout the rest of his career, painting figures both standing and seated, in interior and exterior locations, and in various states of undress. Among the most radiant pictures of his career, these works were often infused with a heady mixture of eroticism and sensuality, their figures typically seen in coquettish poses, slowly removing their clothes, or performing the daily rituals of their toilette.
For the artist, these nude female bodies offered a means of exploring the relationship of colour, paint and application in the creation of form. Studying the forms of his undressed models in a variety of positions, scenarios and guises, the artist developed a keen appreciation of the ways in which varying effects of light and movement could dramatically alter the colour patterns of his subject’s skin. Renoir sought to capture these transient effects in his paintings, and entered a period of prolonged contemplation on the subject, producing hundreds of nude figures from his studio in the idyllic Cagnes-sur-Mer in the South of France. During this time the artist began to grow increasingly interested in the tactility of his sitter’s flesh, drawing inspiration from the art of Titian, Rubens and Velázquez, as he sought a way of expressing a sense of touch through visual means alone. As he explained: ‘I don’t feel a nude is done until I can reach out and pinch it’ (Renoir, quoted in ibid., p. 209). In Jeune femme arrangeant sa chemise, Renoir achieves this with a high degree of skill, capturing the warmth and texture of his model’s skin through a subtle layering of opalescent colour, inviting his viewer to contemplate the feel of her body as well as its visual beauty.
Colour plays an integral part in this approach. In the present work, Renoir articulates the body’s contours using a series of delicate, subtle tonal shifts to reveal the architecture of the figure’s form. For example, the way the warm sunlight brushes the young woman’s shoulder causes her skin to shift from the soft purple tones of her torso, turning the skin of her upper arm a creamy rose hue. Incorporating peach, pink, golden yellow, and bluish-purple tones, Renoir’s palette is infused with a lightness that imbues the figure with a distinct luminosity. Describing his aims as a colourist in his painting of flesh tones, Renoir stated, ‘I look at a nude; there are myriads of tiny tints. I must find the ones that will make the flesh on my canvas live and quiver’ (Renoir, quoted in W. Pach, ‘Pierre Auguste Renoir’, in Scribner’s Magazine, vol. 51, no. 5, May 1912, pp. 606-612). The artist’s layering of paint and tiny brushstrokes allowed these ‘tints’ to mix and combine, achieving a lively, vibrant surface which suggests the flutter of living flesh. This texture, combined with the shimmering lustrous nature of the colours, enhances the soft, supple appearance of the woman’s skin, giving it a delicate, velvety quality.
Suffused with a soft, golden light, the composition evokes the idyllic, sun-soaked landscape the artist found in the South of France, where he had moved to in 1897, making his home in the serene oasis of Cagnes-sur-Mer. Just a short distance along the Mediterranean coast from Nice, Cagnes-sur-Mer boasted a temperate climate and year-round sunshine, which offered Renoir not only significant health-benefits but also a charming, picturesque world in which to paint. He found a new joy and peace there, proclaiming: ‘In this marvellous country, it seems as if misfortune cannot befall one; one is cossetted by the atmosphere’ (Renoir, quoted in L. Gowing, ‘Renoir’s Sentiment and Sense’, in exh. cat., Renoir, London, 1985, p. 268). Settling in the South also gave the artist some much-needed distance from the bustling world of Paris. His imagination became liberated and his creative energies began to flow freely, stimulated by the beauty of his surroundings.
There is a strong sense of romanticism at play in Jeune femme arrangeant sa chemise, as the sensuous nude is transported to a timeless earthly paradise, her delicately hued skin set against the freely brushed patches of the sun-dappled summer foliage that fills the background. Renoir believed that forest scenery ‘makes you feel there is water about,’ and often used it to locate his bathers in a serene, timeless setting (Renoir, quoted in ibid., p. 32). Here, Renoir casts the young woman in the guise of a classical nymph, her clothing and accessories suggesting no particular time period, but simply evoking an eternal idyll that remains ageless. The model appears to blush as she removes her clothes, her flushed face and rosy cheeks suggesting she is perhaps embarrassed to be caught in this situation, a detail that Renoir uses to enhance the impression of her youth and innocence. As with most of the artist’s nudes, she seems unaware of Renoir’s observations, her attention remaining entirely absorbed in her actions. These elements combine together to create an impression that the moment is fleeting, and has been captured by the artist like a snapshot, just before the figure moves and the elegance of her form is altered.