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.
"A sort of break came in my work about 1883," Renoir told Ambroise Vollard late in his life. "I had wrung Impressionism dry, and I finally came to the conclusion that I knew neither how to paint nor draw" (quoted in J. House, Renoir in the Barnes Foundation, New Haven, 2012, p. 113). This realization sparked a three-year period of intense questioning and experimentation, during which Renoir wholly re-ordered his goals as a painter. Dissatisfied with the seeming spontaneity and imprecision of Impressionism, with its loose brushwork and patchy light, he reintroduced traditional notions of draftsmanship into his art, adopting the crisp edges, uniform illumination, and dry, controlled brushstroke of Ingres. Seeking to give the human form a more monumental presence, he focused increasingly on contour, which he used to silhouette his figures sharply against the background. John House has written, "In technique, composition, and subject matter Renoir was deliberately moving away from any suggestion of the fleeting or the contingent, away from the Impressionist preoccupation with the captured instant, towards a more timeless vision of woman" (Renoir, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1985, p. 242).
Renoir had first started to experiment with alternatives to Impressionism as early as 1879, a period of disillusionment in the Impressionist group as a whole. The strategy of independently organized, cooperative exhibitions had brought little real success, and even such erstwhile supporters as Zola were encouraging the Impressionists to go beyond the informal, freely brushed sketch and to produce more resolved pictorial statements. Seeking inspiration in the art of the past, Renoir began to study the work of Ingres and also may have discovered Cennino Cennini's Il Libro dell'Arte, a fifteenth-century Florentine manual of painting technique, around this time. The results of this research are evident in Renoir's most ambitious canvas of 1880, Le déjeuner des canotiers, in which the multi-figure composition is carefully structured and the individual forms are clearly defined (Daulte, no. 379; Dauberville, no. 224; fig. 1).
In the winter of 1881-1882, Renoir undertook a three-month voyage to Italy, which confirmed to him that he was on the right course. In Rome and Naples, he came to understand "the grandeur and simplicity of the ancient painters" and began to seek "broad harmonies without any longer preoccupying myself with the small details which dim the sunlight," as he later recalled (quoted in ibid., p. 220). A painting of a seated nude that he brought back home reveals the impact of these encounters (Daulte, no. 387; Dauberville, no. 583; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts). Rejecting the Impressionist technique of fusing the figure with her surroundings, the canvas shows the nude model distinctly demarcated against the landscape, and her simple, pyramidal shape lends the composition a monumental, timeless air. Renoir himself would come to see the Italian voyage as the watershed moment in his career. In old age, he declared, "Perhaps I've been painting the same three or four paintings throughout my life! What is certain that since my trip to Italy, I've been working away at the same problems" (quoted in ibid., p. 15).
The general patterns of his work changed little in the immediate aftermath of the Italian journey. He continued to paint commissioned portraits, he undertook a trio of major canvases (the Danse panels) on the theme of urban and suburban recreation, and he sold numerous modern-dress studies to Durand-Ruel. By 1884, however, he found himself at a crisis point--"the end of Impressionism," he would later proclaim--and he entered a particularly hermetic phase of technical experimentation (quoted in ibid., p. 241). For the next three years, he traveled very little, finding the stimulus of new landscapes and novel effects irrelevant--even detrimental--to the pictorial problems that he was exploring. He also exhibited only occasionally, opting not to submit to the Salon between 1883 and 1890, nor to the final Impressionist group show in 1886. He abandoned scenes of modern life, accepted only a very few portrait commissions, and left many smaller figure studies unfinished. Although he continued to produce landscapes and still-lifes, his attention was focused on a series of major figure paintings, in which he consolidated his new, linear style.
The culminating statement of this period of aesthetic crisis and resolution is the monumental Grandes baigneuses, which Renoir meticulously planned over a full year in a series of some twenty preliminary studies (Daulte, no. 514; Dauberville, no. 1292; fig. 2). When the canvas was exhibited at the Galerie Georges Petit in spring 1887, it aroused great polemic, with some viewers lamenting Renoir's new manner and others lauding it. Pissarro complained to his son Lucien, "It's very good not to want to stay in the same place, but he has only cared to be concerned with line. The figures stand out one against another without taking their relations into account, and so it is incomprehensible" (quoted in B.E. White, Renoir: His Life, Art, and Letters, New York, 1984, p. 174). Octave Mirbeau, in contrast, was steadfast in his support: "The composition is exquisite," he proclaimed, "despite or rather because of the precise drawing à la Ingres that the artist audaciously sought. Everything betrays accomplished research and the brilliant effort to create something new" (quoted in A. Distel, Renoir, New York, 2010, p. 249). Simultaneously disappointed by this equivocal response and confident that he had brought his linear style to its pinnacle, Renoir embarked almost immediately on a new path, adopting a softer, more fluid touch. "The end result of numerous experiments (with design, color, and technique), the Philadelphia painting had no successor in the Renoir corpus," Sylvie Patry has written (Renoir in the 20th Century, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2009, p. 370).
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Jeunes filles jouant au volant is almost exactly contemporary with the Grandes baigneuses and so closely comparable to it in many ways that it might be considered a clothed pendant, albeit on a more intimate scale. François Daulte has called the present painting "an outstanding example" of this watershed period in Renoir's career (op. cit., 1973, p. 79), while Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell have written, "The spectacular Girls Playing Battledore...is from his greatest period: the dealers call it a perfect Renoir" (op. cit., 2013, p. 219). Like the Grandes baigneuses, the painting depicts five female figures, two of whom (on the left) are the dominant actors in the scene and three of whom (on the right) play a subsidiary role; there are no other multi-figure compositions of such complexity in Renoir's work from this period. The setting in both paintings is very similar: a generalized, rural landscape featuring stands of trees in the middle distance and hazy, rolling hills beyond. The figures are painted with fine, barely visible strokes that suggest a slight sheen and the landscape with a more active and variegated Impressionist touch, a bravura textural contrast that heightens the sharp demarcation between figure and ground. These are not plein-air studies but highly resolved studio creations, informed by a traditional hierarchy of planes in which firmly modeled figures are isolated against a "natural," stage-like setting (compare fig. 3).
In other important aspects, however, Jeunes filles jouant au volant departs from the model of the Grandes baigneuses: it is livelier and more engaging, less strict a manifesto of Renoir's new style. Although the figures in both paintings are made to conform to Renoir's ideal physiognomic type (with rounded features, flushed cheeks, a pert snub nose, and bee-stung lips), their postures in the present scene are more natural and convincing. They retain a certain mannered elegance in the tilt of the head, but they avoid the "frozen" quality of the Grandes baigneuses, which attracted such critical pique when it was exhibited in 1887. Still more notable, the palette in the present painting is much richer and more variegated than that of the bather canvas, with its uniformly cool, subdued tonalities. Here, the greens and blues of the background are enlivened with warm touches of rose and mauve, which in turn are echoed in two of the figures' dresses. The other three dresses are rendered as vivid pops of orange and blue, complementary hues that activate the surface of the canvas and stand out dramatically against the more muted ground (compare fig. 4). House has written, "The conjunction of the rich Impressionist palette with the crisp contours in parts of the painting is a surprisingly stark juxtaposition of line and color, the two modes of rendering form that were traditionally opposed in academic theory and practice" (op. cit., 2012, p. 111).
Of course, the most striking difference between Jeunes filles jouant au volant and the Grandes baigneuses is not style but subject matter. Both paintings depict five figures frolicking in an imagined outdoor setting. The bathers, however, are completely timeless, like the nymphs of Rococo art; the figures in the present painting, by contrast, wear contemporary fashions and play a racquet sport--jeu de volant, a precursor of badminton--that was popular with the leisured classes in Europe throughout the nineteenth century. During the 1870s and early 1880s, one of Renoir's favorite themes had been the visual pageantry of the everyday world, exemplified by the portrayal of young women in elegant costume and especially elaborate hats. "Come to Chatou tomorrow with a pretty summer hat," he wrote to an unidentified model in 1880. "Do you still have that big hat that you look so nice in? If so, I'd like that, the gray one, the one you wore in Argenteuil" (quoted in Renoir, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Tübingen, 1996, p. 204). Contemporary fashions largely disappeared from Renoir's work during the period of the Grandes baigneuses, when his preoccupation with the depiction of l'éternel féminin led him to eschew any reference to modern life. The present painting represents a rare modern costume piece from these years, anticipating Renoir's renewed embrace of the theme around 1890.
When Renoir painted figures in fashionable dress in the 1870s, however, the result was very different from what we see here. During his Impressionist years, Renoir had positioned his models in verifiably modern settings: crowded boulevards, cafés, theater loges, sun-dappled parks, and elegantly appointed domestic interiors. Even when the setting is little more than a curtain of greenery, the play of light across figure and ground alike suggests a specific, fleeting moment (fig. 5). By 1887, however, Renoir had abandoned such seemingly spontaneous and informal scenes, the stock-in-trade of Impressionism, and sought instead to imbue his art with a greater permanence and solidity. In Jeunes filles jouant au volant (and its numerous successors in the 1890s: e.g. fig. 6), he has placed his stylishly clad figures in a wholly unspecific rural setting, recalling the fêtes champêtres of Watteau. The light is matte and generalized, with few cast shadows, and there is no pretense to a legible, consecutive spatial structure (note how the figure in orange seems to hover, rather than standing firmly on the ground). The result is an intentional hybrid of timelessness and modernity, the idyllic and the everyday, which gives the painting its particular power and also speaks poignantly to the aesthetic issues that preoccupied Renoir at this time. House has concluded:
"Renoir [was exploring] the possibility of reconciling in painting the contingent with the permanent: that informal everyday scenes could be re-created in more permanent, traditional forms, and timeless themes revitalized by direct observation. This synthesis became the focus of his quest as a painter, but he found no easy solutions: over a decade of experimentation with techniques and methods lay ahead of him, during which the rival claims of open-air painting and studio work at times seemed irreconcilable" (op. cit., p. 220).
(fig. 1) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le déjeuner des canotiers, 1880-1881. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Barcode: 28860938
(fig. 2) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Les grandes baigneuses, 1887. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Barcode: 28860945
(fig. 3) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, L'enfant au sein, 1886. Private collection. Barcode: 28860969
(fig. 4) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, En Bretagne, 1886. Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. Barcode: 28860952
(fig. 5) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Balançoire, 1876. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Barcode: 28860976
(fig. 6) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La cueillette des fleurs, circa 1890. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Barcode: 28860983