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.
When Renoir painted this idyllic scene of a rosy-cheeked bather seated beside a woodland stream, he was in the midst of a vital period of artistic reassessment and renewal. In 1887, he had exhibited Les grandes baigneuses, a veritable manifesto of the hard-edged, Ingres-inspired manner that he had painstakingly cultivated since the middle of the decade. Confident that he had brought this linear style to its pinnacle—and simultaneously disheartened that this monumental painting, in which he had invested so much, had met with a largely hostile response—Renoir embarked on a new path almost as soon as the exhibition closed. “I have taken up again, never to abandon it, my old style, soft and light of touch,” he wrote to his dealer Durand-Ruel in 1888. “Like Fragonard,” he added deferentially, “but not so good” (quoted in Renoir in the Barnes Foundation, New Haven, 2012, p. 121).
This sea-change in Renoir’s approach, which ushered in a decade of mounting prosperity and long-awaited fame for the artist, plainly informs the present Baigneuse assise. In lieu of the crisp, dry contours that separate figure and ground in Les grandes baigneuses, Renoir here employed an exquisitely soft, painterly touch throughout, fusing the body of the young bather with the lush vegetation that surrounds her. Viewed in profile, seemingly unaware of the viewer, she embodies Renoir’s ideal of woman as a natural being, in harmony with the earthly paradise of her setting.
Classical French tradition abounds with mythological and allegorical precedents for the nude in a landscape—Boucher’s Diana Leaving Her Bath in the Louvre, Renoir claimed, was “the first picture that took my fancy, and I have clung to it all my life as one does to one’s first love” (quoted in Renoir in the 20th Century, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2009, p. 206). Renoir’s own bathers, however, are thoroughly modern in their lack of a narrative; in the present painting, the blue ribbon that the model wears knotted at her neck—a token of everyday life—draws attention to the painterly artifice of the scene. “Renoir’s nudes,” John House has noted, “are on the borderline between modernity and timelessness, between young model-girls and nymphs” (Renoir, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1985, p. 264).