This work will be included in the forthcoming Pierre-Auguste Renoir digital catalogue raisonné, currently being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Plattner Institute, Inc.
Following his trip to Italy in 1881 Renoir became preoccupied with the classical traditions of the paysage composé. Renoir was keen to portray an Arcadian vision of the French landscape, which was natural and unchanging, choosing to depict unspoiled views, free from any signs of industry or modern life. Au bord de la rivière, 1896, is an exquisite example of this period, beautifully illustrating the artist’s romantic visions of the French countryside, highlighting its timeless values and picturesque charm. Disillusioned with the transience of Impressionist painting, Renoir now aimed to capture a luminosity in his pictures, whilst still respecting the integrity of forms, and his search is elegantly achieved in the present work. Here the artist perfectly describes the brilliance of sunlight, applying a loose and visceral brushstroke to create a haze of bright, blended tonalities, to create dramatic contrasts of light and shadow. Renoir described his joy of such practices; ‘I have perpetual sunshine and I can scrub out and begin again as often as I like… So I am staying in the sun – not to paint portraits in full sunlight, but while I am warming myself and looking hard at things I hope I will have acquired some of the grandeur and simplicity of the old masters’ (Renoir quoted in F. Fosca, Renoir, London, 1964, pp. 146-7).
Accuracy to detail is now abandoned in favour of a unified and balanced aesthetic. In a letter to Madame Charpentier in 1882 Renoir wrote, ‘So, by looking around outside, I have finished by seeing only the broad harmonies, and am no longer preoccupied with the little details, which only extinguish the sunlight, instead of increasing its brilliance’ (ibid., p. 147). Renoir’s ambition to focus on the wider harmonies and create a cohesive pictorial surface comes to fruition in Au bord de la rivière. Concentrating on the ambience and atmosphere of the place, Renoir omits detail, only loosely painting the landscape, so that the trees are now a flurry of mottled greens, set against the scurried blue and pink brushstrokes of the water and sky, with only a few particulars, such as the reeds, identifying the river. By applying such a loose, yet dynamic brush, the artist grants the impression of wind and air, indicated in the rippling water and undulating trees; he deploys a more fluid and harmonious manner of painting, moving away from the staccato brushstrokes of his earlier years, to bring life to the scene.