According to Ambroise Vollard’s memoirs, in the spring of 1875 Renoir rented a second Parisian studio and garden, at 12 rue Cortot, after he had sold his Mother and Children (‘The Frick Collection, New York) for the princely sum of 1,200 francs. For the next eighteen months he divided his time between his home at 35 rue Saint-Georges and the upper story of this dilapidated seventeenth -century outbuilding on the Butte Montmartre, where he also had use of the stables to store his canvases and, even more important, free run of a large garden in which to paint in plein air. Having established residence in Montmartre, Renoir began work the following year on the masterpiece of his Impressionist period, the Moulin de la Galette (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), conceived between April and October 1876 in both the open-air dance hall and the garden of the rue Cortot. As Renoir’s son pointed out, his father rarely worked on one canvas at a time, and Nini in the Garden, signed but not dated, belongs to the period immediately before work on the Moulin de la Galette began in earnest. Inspired by Monet’ work at Argenteuil, Renoir had been experimenting since the early 18708 with the motif of young women in the garden: in size, format, and orientation, Nini in the Garden may be loosely grouped with Woman with a Black Dog, 1874 (formerly, Charles Clore Collection, London) and the radiant Umbrella of 1878 (sale, Christie's, May 11, 1988, lot 15). These paintings are identical in size (24 by 20 inches); each explores the problem of integrating the clothed female figure in ambient daylight and achieving a harmony between elegant Parisienne and exuberant nature. Even more closely related is Young Girl on the Beach, which was probably painted at the same session: there, the model, Nini Lopez, sits on a similar garden chair wearing identical dress, but her presence is more assertive, now the chief element in the composition. Both paintings convey the delight that Renoir experienced in the large garden at the rue Cortot. Georges Riviere, who had accompanied Renoir in his search for the ideal Montmartre studio, 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 hallway, we stood before a vast uncultivated lawn dotted with poppies, convolvulus, and daisies.” Beyond this, Riviére continued, lay a beautiful allée planted with trees stretching the full length of the garden—this was the view that Renoir used for his celebrated painting The Swing (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)—and at the end was a fruit and vegetable patch with dense bushes and poplar trees. It is difficult to know exactly which corner of the garden is represented in this painting, although Nini does appear to be sitting at the edge of an untidy lawn.
Renoir’s model here, Nini Lopez, a young girl from Montmartre, appeared in at least fourteen of the artists canvases between 1874 and 1878, and it has recently been suggested that she posed for the large Mother and Children Riviere described her as an “ideal model: punctual, serious and discreet” and admired her “marvellous head of shining, golden blond hair”. Renoir would also remember her as beautiful and docile, but somewhat duplicitous—he spoke of “a certain Belgian disingenuousness” in her. Although Nini’s mother entertained hopes that Renoir would eventually become her protector, these were finally disappointed when Nini married a third-rate actor from the Montmartre theatre. In Nini in the Garden, which should be dated around 1875-76, Renoir’s handling is energized, nervous, and experimental. He makes no attempt to unify the paint surface of his canvas: ridges of rich impasto sit alongside areas of barely covered ground. His colour is nonetheless applied in dabs and strokes of varying touch, appropriate to the forms they describe. Thus, the leafy bushes in the background are a mosaic of greens, browns, and ochers; the sky in the upper left a series of blue strokes placed over the greens—the most obvious of Renoir’s borrowings from Monet. Nini herself is painted more emphatically, the violet blue of her hat and underskirt the densest blocks of colour in the composition. Nini’s costume is very similar to, if not identical to, the one she wears in Departure from the Conservatory. Comparison helps establish the design of Nini’s ensemble as it appears in Nini in the Garden: dark tunic over a light pinafore dress, with dark underskirt, this last element just visible through the grass and plants.
It is clear, however, that costume is of little concern to Renoir here. His chief interest is to record the sunlight as it filters through bushes and trees onto the diminutive and fashionably dressed Parisienne. He had already investigated these effects on the nude; Nini in the Garden marks an early stage in such treatment of the dressed figure. Somewhat tentatively, Renoir painted the reflections of foliage on Nini’s face and the larger shadows on her dress. Her golden brown tresses are overwhelmed by the greens and browns of the background foliage; the forms of her dress dissolve in the dappled light and shadow.
Those elements of Renoir’s luminist vocabulary that would cause such outrage in 1877—his colored shadows, the violet tonality of his outdoor scenes—are present in this early example: for example, the line of chartreuse that defines Nini’s cheek and chin as well as the mauve patches of shadow on her dress. Although his plein-air painting still owed much to Monet—whose Camille Reading, 1872 had explored the dappled effect of sunlight on the dressed figure—in the paintings he made in the garden of the rue Cortot, Renoir developed what Théodore Duret would consider his most striking contribution to Impressionism: depicting the human figure in the endlessly changing, mobile light of nature. Renoir’s exploration of light dancing over the human figure would achieve full expression in The Swing and Moulin de la Galette. In Nini in the Garden such effects are rendered a little hesitantly, but with the daring of experiment.
It is not only in matters of technique that Nini in the Garden is characteristic. Nini, in elegant tocque and fashionable dress, sits somewhat uncomfortably on the makeshift garden chair, her neat and relatively formal attire contrasting wittily with the overgrown and unkempt garden. She is transformed from professional model and working-class beauty into demure lady of the manor. And this transformation is made, typically, with both sympathy and tenderness and a complete lack of condescension. Julie Manet would recall Renoir saying how delicate he had found the people of Montmartre whom Zola had portrayed as bestial. Yet his depiction of Nini is equally misleading, replacing the customs of Montmartre with a sweeter respectability. This was Renoir’s great fiction—as willful as Zola’s—and it was at the core of his figure paintings of the 1870s, sustaining a vision of modernity that was highly colored and eternally joyous.