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.
Buste de jeune fille (Femme de profil) depicts an attractive, dark-haired ingénue, poised on the very brink of womanhood. Her hair is gathered up in a chignon, with just a few tendrils escaping down the creamy nape of her neck, and her dress slips slightly from one shoulder, lending the canvas a subtle erotic frisson that enlivens the reserved, decorous pose. Rejecting the Impressionist technique of fusing the figure with her surroundings, Renoir has distinctly demarcated the young woman’s solidly modeled form against a broadly brushed, cobalt blue background. She is illuminated from above with a uniform, white light, which accentuates the contrast between her pale, milky skin and the rich, dark ground. Her simple, pyramidal shape lends the composition a monumental, timeless air, which is underscored by her distant gaze.
“In technique, composition, and subject matter,” John House has explained, “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 painted this appealing canvas in 1884, while deeply engaged in a process of experimentation and resolution, during which he wholly re-ordered his goals as a painter. He had first started to explore alternatives to Impressionism as early as 1879, a time of disillusionment in the Impressionist group as a whole. The strategy of independently organized, cooperative exhibitions had brought little real success, and even such dedicated 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 immersed himself in Cennino Cennini’s Il Libro dell’Arte, a fifteenth-century Florentine manual of painting technique. In the winter of 1881-1882, he undertook a three-month voyage to Italy, where he admired “the grandeur and simplicity of the ancient painters” and became ever more convinced that he was on the right course (quoted in ibid., p. 220).
Within a year of his return, Renoir found himself in the grips of an aesthetic crisis. “A sort of break came in my work about 1883,” he 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 Renoir in the Barnes Foundation, New Haven, 2012, p. 113). For the next three years, he traveled very little, exhibited only occasionally, and accepted few portrait commissions, focusing instead on consolidating his new, classicizing conception of the figure. “Everything betrays accomplished research and the brilliant effort to create something new,” wrote Octave Mirbeau when the culminating work of this period, Les grandes baigneuses (Dauberville, no. 1292; Philadelphia Museum of Art), was exhibited at the Galerie Georges Petit in spring 1887 (quoted in A. Distel, Renoir, New York, 2010, p. 249).
Eschewing the seeming spontaneity and imprecision of Impressionism, the present Buste de jeune fille heralds this new direction in Renoir’s art. The identity of the nubile young woman who posed for the canvas remains unknown. Whereas society portraiture required a certain physiognomic specificity, paintings such as Buste de jeune fille—generalized celebrations of l’éternel feminin, rather than genuine likenesses of a particular sitter—imposed no such constraints. Renoir never hesitated, therefore, to alter his models’ appearance to conform to an ideal type, with rounded features, pearly pink skin, a snub nose, bee-stung lips, and wide eyes.
“How difficult it is in a picture to find the exact point at which to stop copying nature,” he explained to the painter Albert André. “The painting must not smell too strongly of the model, but at the same time, you must get the feeling of nature. A painting is not a verbatim record. The most important thing is for it to remain painting” (quoted in Renoir in the 20th Century, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2009, p. 67).
Nevertheless, it is tempting to speculate about which of Renoir’s attractive young models may have provided the initial inspiration for the present painting. With her dark, straight brows and side-swept, chestnut-colored bangs, the figure bears no small resemblance to Suzanne Valadon, who sat for Renoir repeatedly between 1883 and 1887. Valadon served as the model for both La danse à la ville and La danse à Bougival of 1882-1883 (Dauberville, nos. 1000-1001; Musée d’Orsay, Paris and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Renoir’s last major statements on the theme of urban and suburban recreation, and for one of the two principal bathers in Les grandes baigneuses. “In Suzanne Valadon Renoir encountered a model of quite exceptional beauty, whose endless eyebrows, flawless skin, and demure smile had already recommended her to a host of painters,” Colin Bailey has written (Renoir’s Portraits: Impressions of an Age, exh. cat., National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1997, p. 200).
Still more striking, however, is the resemblance between the young woman in Buste de jeune fille and two sisters, both up-and-coming actresses, who posed for Renoir in 1881-1882. The elder girl, Eugénie-Marie Darlaud, appears in Les deux soeurs, one of Renoir’s most celebrated emblems of modern life (Dauberville, no. 254; Art Institute of Chicago). Mademoiselle Darlaud would go on to become a star of the Théâtre Gymnase and the Comédie Française, whose prominent and well-heeled lovers included the composer Louis Varney and the chocolate mogul Gaston Menier. Renoir showed Les deux soeurs to great acclaim at the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition in 1882 and the same year painted Eugénie Darlaud’s younger sister Anne, better known by her stage name Jeanne Demarsy, who had recently posed for Manet’s exquisite allegory Le Printemps (no. 1060; Christie’s New York, 11 May 1995, lot 112). Could the Darlaud sisters have proven such appealing models that Renoir sought one of them out again in 1884, capturing her idealized likeness—timeless and refined, with just a hint of sensuality—in Buste de jeune fille?
Whoever the model, the painting found immediate success on the market, despite the economic crisis that gripped France at the time. Before the year’s end, it had entered the collection of Charles Haviland, a wealthy porcelain manufacturer from Renoir’s hometown of Limoges. Renoir, whose own first career had been as a decorator of porcelain plates and vases, probably met Haviland around 1872, when the latter founded a ceramics atelier on the outskirts of Paris. The two men grew closer in the late 1870s, when Haviland married the daughter of Renoir’s friend Philippe Burty, the art critic and fervent japoniste, and began to purchase Japanese prints and Impressionist pictures under Burty’s guidance; it was likely Burty who arranged for Renoir to paint a portrait of Haviland’s four-year-old son Paul in 1884 (Dauberville, no. 1261; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City).
Buste de jeune fille remained in Haviland’s possession for more than three decades. Henry Bernstein, the popular author of melodramas for the Paris stage and an outspoken critic of anti-Semitism, subsequently acquired the painting for his collection.