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Reclining Nude, 1883
Renoir's ambition to paint the female nude is the single consistent thread in his peripatetic existence of the early 1880s. Approaching this elevated subject with the "gaucherie of an autodidact" (ac- cording to Julius Meier-Graefe), he attacked the classical canon on a variety of fronts: the journey from the Blond Bather, 1881 (The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.) to the great Bathers of 1885-87 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) was neither inevitable nor directly routed, but loaded with experimentation. Reclining Nude, painted midway between these icons, is a good example of Renoir's search for the appropriate idiom in which to treat high art.
Reclining on a mossy bank with the sea in the distant background, her ruddy mane of hair braided in a heavy plait, Renoir's nude dominates the autumnal landscape while remaining very much a part of it. Although the overall effect is still sketchy, the nude's figure is painted with great concentration, and her flesh and hair are densely worked: strokes of pink, white, and mauve are applied insis- tently to produce a fleshy form of real solidity. In contrast to this, the landscape and sky are rendered hastily, the cream ground still visible beneath the blues, reds, and greens surrounding the naked girl.
Renoir had difficulty with the pose—his foreshortening of the left arm is not entirely successful—and he was indecisive about the de- gree of nudity to portray: pentimenti show that the drapery initially extended to cover more of his model's ample thigh. By placing the figure resolutely within the landscape, he was obliged to attend to the illusion of depth and mass, something no longer of overriding interest to him. Thus, the model tends to float against the grassy bank; we see, but do not feel, the weight she places on her left elbow; and spatial recession into the slope beyond is blocked by the firm surfaces and insistent contours of her supine form.
For Meier-Graefe, such awkwardness constituted Renoir's supreme skill, since it bore witness to the sincerity of his quest for a classical language. Renoir himself noted that in treating the female nude when he was forty, he was starting all over again. This remark has particular poignancy here, since the Reclining Nude follows the for- mat of the female academic that had been a set student piece from the eighteenth century and was still an exercise commonly undertaken by aspiring nineteenth-century artists. But here Renoir was also paying homage to the master of the genre; his figure conforms closely to Ingress Grande Odalisque, 1814, but is pared of any reference to the seraglio. At this point, Renoir could have seen the Grande Odalisque on only two occasions; it was exhibited in 1867 and 1874, but did not enter the Louvre until 1899. Renoir recounted to Meier-Graefe that his appreciation of Ingress art had come only when he was copying Delacroix's Jewish Wedding in the Louvre for his patron Jean Dollfus in 1875. Hanging next to Delacroix's painting was Ingress portrait of Mrne Riviere, to which his eye returned again and again. Yet Ingres was far from an obvious model for the Impressionists, and if the sensuous arabesques of the Reclining Nude make comparison with the Grande Odalisque unavoidable, the painting itself, with its textured handling and warm, ruddy hues, is paradoxically the least Ingresque of all his nudes of this period.
But Renoir did more than simply graft his style onto a venerable academic tradition. His Reclining Nude is rooted in direct experience and observation, and it is from the fusion of the two that Renoir's nudes derive their stature. After a summer in Normandy as guests of several wealthy clients, Renoir and his wife Aline Charigot spent September of 1883 in Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France. Renoir was charmed by the island's beaches and rocky coves, and even more so by the uninhibited behavior of the young English holidaymakers, whose freedom and naturalness he found particularly appealing. "Here one bathes by the rocks, which also serve as changing rooms, because there is nowhere else to go," he wrote to Paul Durand-Ruel on September 27, 1883. "And you cannot imagine how pretty it all looks, with men and women lying together on the rocks. It's more like a Watteau landscape than the real world." The unexpected informality of the bathers there—as opposed to the elegance of the Normandy resorts —provided him with "a source of real motifs" that he could use "later on." He would leave Guernsey at the beginning of October, he continued, "with a few canvases and some documents from which to make paintings in Paris." He concluded this letter by recounting the pleasure he had taken in "surprising a group of young girls changing into their bathing costumes, who, although English, did not seem at all alarmed."
This vivid letter immediately brings to mind the easy sensuality of the Reclining Nude, and the painting should be related to Renoir's experience of Guernsey and dated to late 1883. Although it has been placed at various dates in the 1880s, Francois Daulte was the first to suggest the convincing date of 1883, based, presumably, on comparison with Renoir's signed and dated Nude in a Landscape. The Annenberg painting, however, has a distinctive russet tonality, and the handling of the nude is more even and carefully worked than in the Parisian painting. It is closer to By the Seashore, securely dated to the Guernsey visit of autumn 1883, in which the summary handling of the expansive coastal setting, where orange reds and greens predominate, is very like the treatment of the background in this painting.
Renoir would use the pose of the Reclining Nude in several paintings of the 1890s, notably the Reclining Nude, 1890 (Norton Simon Foundation, Los Angeles) and Bathers in the Forest, 1897 (The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pa.). The Annenberg Reclining Nude does not seem to have been intended for exhibition —by reason, no doubt, of its exploratory nature—and may well have been given by the artist himself to Arsene Alexandre, the prominent art critic and supporter of Renoir's work, whose small collection boasted three other nude compositions from the early 1880s, including the full-scale chalk drawing for the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Bathers, which is now in the Louvre.
|Institution||The Metropolitan Museum of Art|
|Medium||Oil on canvas|
65.1 x 81.3 cm