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 Franois Daulte, Durand-Ruel, Venturi, Vollard and Wildenstein.
In this radiant painting, Pierre-Auguste Renoir depicts the quintessential Impressionist subject of the fashionably attired Parisienne within a scene of abundantly flowering nature. Painted in 1878 at the height of Impressionism, the variegated brushwork consisting of thick and swirling impasto and small dabs of spontaneous and audaciously applied paint, make L'ombrelle one of the artist's most experimental works of the latter part of that decade. The picture exemplifies Renoir's ideal of harmoniously integrating a figure into an outdoor setting, and of capturing the myriad effects of light and shade in a range of dazzling colours. Bright sunlight illuminates the luxuriantly painted blossoming tree and bounces off the model's hat and daintily held parasol, which, in turn, partially casts her figure into shade. Patches of violet and pink, meanwhile, brilliantly convey dappled light as it filters through the foliage.
L'ombrelle relates to a sequence of exuberantly painted canvases depicting women in garden settings that Renoir executed in the years immediately following the very first Impressionist exhibition of 1874. These pictures may have been inspired by the example of Claude Monet, whom Renoir had visited at his home in Argenteuil during the summer months of 1873 to 1875. There, Monet had painted a series of works showing women, often toting parasols, in the privacy and splendour of his garden. Frustrated by successive rejections in 1872 and 1873 from the official state-sponsored exhibition known as the Salon, Renoir had increasingly come under Monet's influence. As his garden paintings show, however, he 'far surpassed Monet's domesticated views of well-ordered gardens with paths and flower beds. With myriad points of colour and brushstrokes moving in every conceivable direction, he dissolved objective forms, melting and intermingling colours in the shimmering flux of sunlight to a degree never before achieved within the context of Impressionist aesthetics' (G. Adriani, Renoir, Cologne, 1996, p. 150).
Renoir's experiences of working alongside Monet at Argenteuil may have prompted him to purchase a second studio in Paris on the rue Cortot in Montmartre in 1876, which was, crucially, adjoined by a large wild garden. Georges Rivière recalled that 'as soon as Renoir entered the house, he was charmed by the view of this garden, which looked like a beautiful abandoned park. Once we had passed through the narrow corridor we stood before a vast, uncultivated lawn dotted with poppies, convolvulus, and daisies there was a pretty allée planted with tall trees and thick shrubs with tall poplars, bending their leafy heads. We were enchanted' (G. Rivière, Renoir et ses amis, 1921, quoted in Renoir Landscapes, exh. cat., London, 2007, p. 177). It was there that Renoir painted his celebrated La balançoire (1876, Musée d'Orsay, Paris), as well as other important works including Nini au jardin (c. 1875, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Sur le banc (1875, private collection) and Le printemps (c. 1876, private collection). Although L'ombrelle is dated as having been painted when the artist was no longer leasing the studio, these three latter canvases relate very closely to the present work with regard to subject matter, dimensions and format.
The model in Nini au jardin and Sur le banc was a young girl from Montmartre called Nini Lopez. Appearing in at least fourteen of Renoir's paintings between 1874 and 1878, it is possible that she also posed for L'ombrelle. According to Rivière, she was 'an ideal model: punctual, serious and discreet Nini had a marvelous head of shining, golden blond hair, long eyelashes beneath well-arched brows and a profile of classical purity' (Rivière, op. cit., quoted in N. Wadley, ed., Renoir: A Retrospective, New York, 1987, pp. 86-7). Renoir was a consummate portraitist, but the young woman's features in this outdoor scene are treated in an informal way, thus revealing the artist's central concern - sensory impressions of nature and the elements, rather than capturing a likeness.
As in Le printemps, the model is shown wearing a tapering tunic over a light blue dress embellished by a small pink ribbon and a darker underskirt. The son of a tailor and dressmaker, Renoir was fascinated by fashion, even proposing in 1879 that a segment in the periodical La Vie moderne be devoted to 'fashions of the week': 'one can make arrangements with milliners and dressmakers. Hats one week. Dresses the next' (Renoir, quoted C. B. Bailey, Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting, exh. cat., New York, 2012, p. 145). Considerably less elaborate than many of the day-dresses that featured in contemporary fashion plates, the model in L'ombrelle is smartly-and indeed primly-attired. Wearing the same blue-rimmed hat garnished with a bow that appears in Le printemps, and clutching a matching small parasol that is trimmed with a ruffle, she cuts a stylish figure. 'He is the true painter of young women', wrote the novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans in a passage that could almost serve as a description of the painting, 'he renders, in this sparkling sunshine, the sheen of their tender skin, the velvet of their flesh, the lustre of their eyes, the elegance of their toilettes' (J. K. Huysmans, L'Art moderne, Paris, 1883, quoted in N. Wadley, op. cit., p. 156).
As its countless appearance in Impressionist paintings indicates, the parasol, epitomising both leisure and respectability, became 'open air painting's most important female attribute' (S. M. Sondergaard, 'Women in Impressionism: An Introduction,' in Women In Impressionism: From Mythical Feminine to Modern Woman, ed. S. S. Maria, Milan, 2006, p. 16). The ombrelle was 'a light and graceful transformation of the parasol' that ostensibly protected the bearer from sunlight, but which had become a crucial accoutrement for the bourgeois woman (see S. Hiner, Accessories to Modernity, Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France, Philadelphia, 2010, pp. 107). It represented an ideal of delicate, sometimes coquettish, femininity that Renoir had first explored in 1867 in Lise à l'ombrelle (Museum Folkwang, Essen). In the present painting, this notion of a delicate femininity, shielded from the sun yet on display, is emphasised by the figure's placement within a natural, lavishly flowering and seemingly secluded little paradise. The traditional association between youthful womanhood and blossoming flora is unmistakable, though her reserved, upright pose and costume of contemporary finery provide a counterpoint to the surrounding shrubbery and exuberantly blooming magnolia tree, shown here in late spring or early summer when the fresh green leaves have emerged and the flowers have begun to fall.
In composition, facture and palette, L'ombrelle is a truly modern picture. Renoir has captured the scene from a raised vantage point, which serves to crop the figure and flatten the background. This is rendered as an almost abstract field of a broken strokes and decorative proto-pointillist dabs that are loosely arranged in bands of vibrant blues and greens. John House has observed that in the latter part of the 1870s, when Marshal MacMahon's moral order regime of France's Third Republic was becoming progressively more repressive, the Impressionists' brushwork became increasingly daring. 'More perhaps than any other Impressionist paintings of the period', House has noted, 'Renoir's experimental works from around 1875-8 reveal a sustained attempt to erase dessin and tonal contrast, in favour of an art based on a network of coloured touches' (J. House, Impressionism: Paint and Politics, New Haven & London, 2004, p. 165). In what is a virtuoso display of paint handling, the blooms of the flowering tree are painted in a multihued, pronounced impasto. This remarkably free treatment recalls the artist's comment to Rivière that in the painting of flowers he could 'experiment boldly with tone and value' (Renoir, quoted in Renoir Landscapes, p. 180). This experimentation with tone and value extends to the figure too, with the model's face painted in patches and strokes of pinks, greens and blues, which suggests the play of light and shade on exposed skin and recalls his vibrantly coloured nude Etude that was exhibited in the Second Impressionist exhibition of 1876.
In this celebration of femininity, nature and pure painting, Renoir achieves a masterful synthesis of figure and landscape - the synthesis of a calm yet fragile woman with a vibrant and animated flowery nook, coalescing in a palette of light-filled, harmonious colour. As the artist's brother wrote just one year after Renoir executed the picture, his 'sole concern' was to attain, 'not perfection of rendering, but the most complete perception of the harmonies of nature' (E. Renoir, quoted in Wadley, op. cit., p. 131).
It is testament to L'ombrelle's outstanding quality that it was formerly in the collection of Robert Treat Paine II. Nephew and namesake of the philanthropist Robert Treat Paine, whose grandfather was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, he amassed a collection of important paintings by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masters. He bequeathed a number of significant works to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, including Edgar Degas' portrait of Edmondo and Therese Morbilli and Vincent van Gogh's Postman Joseph Roulin. As the museum has recorded, 'Paine sought masterpieces individually chosen' (The great Boston collectors: paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1984, p. 29).