The abundance of flower painting in Renoir’s oeuvre is yet to be fully documented, but it is a genre that occupied him at every stage in his career and one that, until the late 1880s, allowed him to experiment with different colour harmonies more easily than did figure painting “When I paint flowers, I feel free to try out tones and values and worry less about destroying the canvas,” Georges Riviére remembered him saying; “I would not do this with a figure painting, since there I would care about ruining the work.” The suggestion that Renoir’s flower paintings were a vehicle for more daring tonal juxtapositions was developed by Julius Meier-Graefe, who perceived an almost abstract quality in them. Unlike Manets flowers, he argued, which encourage us to smell, touch, and savour the flower with our eyes, Renoir’s flowers are above all fictions of colour, possessing an independent “immaterial completeness” that would be diminished by any comparison with the botanical species they represent.
Flower paintings were also easier to sell. Although Riviere claimed that Renoir disposed of his flower paintings for little more than the flowers cost him, both Renoir and Monet turned to still life in the bleak period around 1880 as the most marketable of genres. It is no coincidence that Renoir used an established format for his still lifes: neatly all of his flower paintings of the 1870s and 1880s generally conform to the canvas size of 25 by 21 inches. It is also telling that one of Renoir’s first canvases to find an American buyer was the splendid Geraniums and Cats (private collection, New York), painted in 1881 and exhibited by Durand-Ruel at the National Academy of Design, New York, in April 1886.
Bouquet of Chrysanthemums is of the standard format for Renoir’s flower paintings. Painted on a coarse-textured canvas, it was executed rapidly, the thin washes of colour first laid in to describe the diffuse mass of flowers without concern for their individual features. With the composition blocked out in this way, Renoir then brought each bloom into focus by applying delicately impasted strokes of colour to define individual petals and stamens and thus give the bouquet its structure. He also took care to record the autumnal character of these flowers, which bloom for about six weeks, by showing the darkening edges of the red flowers with their drying, brittle stamens. Yet the chief effect is one of great luminosity and warmth. This he achieved by setting these highly coloured flowers on an orange and blue background, against which they resonate, and by generously applying touches of white lead and chrome yellow, which vibrate on almost every flower.
In his choice of composition, Renoir was clearly influenced by the spare and elegant flower paintings of Fantin-Latour, whose Chrysanthemums, 1862,was one of the earliest French paintings of that flower. Like the Chrysanthemums, the flowers in Renoir’s painting expand to fill the width of the canvas; both vase and ledge are painted simply, with no indication of the interior in which they are placed. Yet Fantin’s crisp and controlled still life lacks the verve of Renoir’s more explosive array, which follows from his own Lilacs in a Bowl (location unknown), painted in 1875, or 1878. In both paintings the flowers enjoy an easy amplitude and expansiveness characteristic of Renoir’s painting at this time.
Bouquet of Chrysanthemums should be dated to the autumn of 1881, and probably was painted either at the country house of his patron Paul Bérard, at Wargemont, outside Dieppe—where Renoir was a visitor in July and September 1881—or back in Paris before he left for Italy at the end of October. In its overall harmony the painting recalls the portrait of Jeanne Henryot (private collection, Switzerland), and the still life's gentle, dappling light is also found in the portrait of Alfred Bérard with His Dog, 1881 (Philadelphia Museum of Art). Renoir may also have been encouraged to paint chrysanthemums after Monet had taken up the subject in a series of still lifes painted at Vétheuil in 1880 and 1881—the two had shared flower motifs before—and, indeed, the flower appears in a second canvas by Renoir, the Girl with a Fan, painted the same year as Bouguet of Chrysanthemums.
Did the chrysanthemum hold any special significance for Renoir and his peers? The flower had been cultivated in China and Japan for centuries and was venerated in Eastern art as one of the four noble plants painted by Chinese scholar-artists and as a preferred motif in Japanese screen painting of the Kano school. Although the plant’s introduction to France was relatively recent—imported to Marseille at the time of the Revolution, it seems to have been widely cultivated only after the Napoleonic Wars—by the 1880s it was described by botanical authorities as among the commonest ornamental garden plants, grown in French fields and meadows everywhere. If the more austere traditions of the flower were hidden from Renoir—in seventeenth-century Chinese painting the chrysanthemum was a symbol of the scholar in retirement, and in Japan it was the emperor's insignia—its more general associations with the East were not. The Girl with a Fan refers explicitly to the Oriental origins of the flower. Pointed in the direction of the red and white chrysanthemums is a painted round fan, with a Chinese motif, probably made in Japan. Both flowers and fan, then, are Eastern imports appropriated and made domestic by Parisian fashion. If it was the exoticism of the chrysanthemums that had distinguished them from other garden flowers, it was their autumnal message of renewal and growth that had a lasting significance for Renoir; chrysanthemums also provided the subject of one of his very last canvases.