The portrait of The Daughters of Catulle Mendes was the most ambitious and most recently painted of the twenty-four works Renoir submitted to the Impressionist exhibition that opened at DurandRuel's gallery, 11 rue Lepelletier, on May 25, 1888. Renoir seems to have started work on it the last week of April, with the forthcoming exhibition very much in mind.'There's something good about figure paintings," he wrote to the father of the sitters. "They're interesting, but nobody wants them." However, as Theodore Duret first pointed out, the portrait may not have been a commission in the strictest sense: "Mendes had long been an admirer of Renoir's, who, in re- turn, wanted to do a portrait of his daughters, whom he found to be charming, as indeed they were." This was also an opportunity for Renoir to reassert himself as master of a lucrative genre in which he had been preeminent a decade earlier. Such a hypothesis is con- firmed, in fact, by the letter Renoir wrote to Mendes in late April, shortly after returning to Paris from visiting his ailing mother in Louveciennes. This letter, which has somehow escaped the attention of Renoir scholars, is revelatory; it throws new light on the genesis of the portrait of Mendes's daughters and also provides information on Renoir's working method. It deserves to be quoted in full: "My dear friend, I have just returned to Paris and beg you to tell me immediately if you want portraits done of your beautiful children. I shall exhibit them at Petit's Gallery [a mistake for Durand-Ruel in May, so you can see why I am in such a hurry. Here are my terms, which I am sure you will find acceptable. Five hundred francs for the three, life size and all together. The eldest girl, seated at the piano, turns to give the note to her sister, who finds it on her violin. The youngest, leaning against the piano, listens on as one must do at that tender age. I shall do the drawings at your house, and the portrait at mine. P.S. The 500 francs are payable 100 francs a month."
Renoir jotted down a quick sketch of the portrait on the letter, which shows that he first conceived of it in a horizontal format similar to Children's Afternoon at Wargemont, the portrait of the Berard children he had painted in 1884. None of the intervening drawings he made chez Mendes are known, but in the course of working out the composition Renoir altered the format and reduced the act of tuning up to the minimum. Whether he worked exclusively from drawings, or used photographs of the three girls as well, re- mains to be established, given the speed with which he painted and the scant opportunity he had to work with the sitters in front of him.
The letter also lays to rest the myth that Mendes paid the trifling sum of 100 francs for this grand portrait, often cited as an example of the low esteem in which Renoir's transitional paintings were held. Compared to the prices fetched by established Salon painters—and even, by the late 1880s, by Renoir's fellow Impressionists Monet and Degas—500 francs was low, although it represented the annual salary of a schoolteacher at that time. But it was more a prix d'ami than an official transaction, for Mendes, who had known Renoir since 1869, was not a collector of Impressionist paintings and owned no other work by him—and the circumstances of the commission were unusual, to say the least. Renoir's jaunty request to Mendes in November 1888 for 100 francs, which carried with it little sense of outrage, was, therefore, a reminder that the final installment for the painting was due, and not, as has previously been suggested, a plea for overdue payment.
If Renoir had hoped to reaffirm his reputation as a portraitist after his showing at Durand-Ruel's, he was at first disappointed. Berthe Morisot, whom Renoir had persuaded to exhibit alongside him, informed Monet that the exhibition had been a "complete fiasco," although Renoir and Whistler were the least to blame. Three months after the exhibition closed, Renoir was still smarting from adverse criticism and lamented to Pissarro that he had received no further portrait commissions.He even submitted The Daughters ofCatulle Mendes to the Salon of 1890—his last appearance there had been in 1883—but the painting was hung too high to be seen: Arsene Alexandre commented that the organizers had "assassinat- ed" the portrait, and Renoir still bitterly recalled the episode in a newspaper interview he gave at the height of his fame in 1904."
Renoir's "Salon painting"—the term is Julius Meier-Graefe' s —represented Renoir's most ambitious attempt yet to reconcile his linear style of the mid-1880s with the more natural painterly and colorist instincts he could never entirely suppress. It is richer in handling than the portrait ofJulie Manet , painted in 1887, and more animated, despite its monumentally, than the portrait of Marie Durand-Ruel , painted in 1888 and which Renoir himself found "monotonous."
Remarkably direct and assured, both in conception and execution, the portrait of The Daughters ofCatulle Mendes may have been worked out over several sittings, but with a minimum of reworking. Renoir had some trouble placing the eldest daughter's left hand—pentimenti of flesh tones can be seen through the piano board—and he may also have shifted the line of her hem. But such changes are very slight. He applied the paint in lush, opaque layers of unmediated hue: with the exception of the richly impasted vase of flowers on the piano, probably painted last of all, there is an effortless consistency in Renoir's handling here. No single element is given prominence, and the brushwork is disguised to produce a paint surface that, while oily, has the sheen of porcelain.
And yet Renoir's finish is highly idiosyncratic and his colorism almost abstract. The luminosity and vibrancy of the portrait is achieved by a precarious balance between sitters and setting, in which both are given equal emphasis. Strokes of mauve and orange on the white dresses and highlights of red in the girls' magnificent tawny tresses maintain the pitch established by the orange reds of the curtain in the background and the piano and floorboards in the foreground. These elements, which Renoir treated synthetically, are described no differently than the young girls themselves. Thus, the patch of hair at the end of the eldest daughter's pigtail, with its highlights of red and brown, is painted in the same way as the parquet floor below. The cloth that covers the upright piano and the sheet music underneath the vase and on the music stand are identical in handling and tone to the youngest girl's hair and dress. It is this new preoccupation with value that so impressed Felix Feneon in his sympathetic review of Durand-Ruel's 1888 exhibition; and Renoir's quest for pictorial unity was fully endorsed by Pissarro, whose exper- iments with pointillism at this time reflect a similar reassessment of Impressionist technique.
The portrait of The Daughters of Catulle Mendes has been reasonably compared with portraits of the children of wealthy clients such as Cahen d'Anvers and Paul Berard from earlier in the 1880s, as well as a group of slightly later paintings that depict young women around a piano —the most celebrated of which, Young Women at the Piano, 1892 (Musee d'Orsay, Paris), commissioned for the Musee du Luxembourg in the winter of 1881, exists in five versions. However, none of these examples correspond in facture to the robust yet highly controlled manner of painting that characterizes the portrait of the Mendes girls, which is closest in handling to the sumptuous Bather (private collection, Tokyo), painted at almost the same time. Of interest here is Renoir's capacity to maintain the energy and vibrancy of the smaller Bather on the grander and more public scale of his group portrait, which Meier-Graefe described as painted with the vehemence of a Frans Hals. By 1890 Renoir would return to an altogether more subdued style, in which his figures are highly colored and increasingly idealized and where surface animation is completely suppressed.
Claude Roger-Marx rightly identified the period from 1888 to 1890 as marking a transition between styles, but saw the seductive, if dissonant, paintings of these years as "works of convalescence." Another interpretation is possible. The new vitality in Renoir's Daughters of Catulle Mendes might be explained as an instinctive response to the French painters of his beloved eighteenth century, whose work held particular appeal in the late 1880s. "Those people who appeared never to paint nature knew more than we do," he wrote to Durand-Ruel in the autumn of 1888, and it is helpful to consider the Mendes portrait in the light of this comment. Renoir's debt to the eighteenth century, and to Fragonard in particular, went beyond sharing motifs and appropriating a certain rococo charm: it derived from an appreciation of the artificiality of eighteenth-century genre painting, its distance from a straightforward description of reality, its urgent stylization. Fragonard's celebrated Music Lesson may well have been in Renoir's mind when painting the Mendes children, but his understanding of rococo fantasy informs the painting in a more general way.
Renoir's portrait of The Daughters of Catulle Mendes is one of his most compelling images of awakening adolescence and has been widely documented as such. It has imposed its charm on commentators otherwise troubled by the metallic lighting and stylized fea- tures of the young girls. Gustave Geffroy, in his review of the 1890 Salon, called the portrait "an intimate poem celebrating the instincts of childhood and the stirrings of the intellect." Yet it demonstrates once again Renoir's unerring capacity for idealization and romance: the serene and self-assured poses assumed by Claudine, Huguette, and Helyonne (reading from left to right) betray nothing of the turbulent and highly unconventional menage to which they belonged.
For Renoir's sitters were the offspring of a longstanding liaison between the Parnassian poet, publicist, and impressario Catulle Mendes (1841-1909) —born in Bordeaux, of Portuguese Jewish extraction—and the soprano and composer, Augusta Holmes (1847-1903)—born in Paris of Irish parentage, whose reputation for "song and seduction" was legendary in Belle Epoque Paris. Mendes, one of the most influential and prolific French authors of the second half of the nineteenth century, had founded the Revue Fantaisiste in 1801— one of the first journals to publish Baudelaire, Theophile Gautier, and Theodore de Banville—and soon became a central figure in the group of neoclassical poets known as the Parnassians. An ardent Wagnerian and a playwright and librettist of some distinction, Mendes was editor-in-chief of several prominent literary journals and in this capacity was able to sponsor a generation of symbolist writers. In 1897 he established readings of early French poetry at the Odeon theater in Paris and in 1900 was commissioned to write the official report on French poetry of the second half of the nineteenth century.
Mendes's literary energies were equaled only by his libidinous adventures, and he was notorious even in an age generally tolerant of irregular behavior. The Goncourts described the nocturnal activities of this "cast-off Bohemian" in salacious detail, writing admiringly of "this anemic-looking figure, whose nights are a ceaseless round of coition and copulation," constantly amazed that one in whom "the flame of love" burned so ardently could maintain such an enormous literary production. Married in 1866 to Gautier's eccentric daughter, Judith, Mendes abandoned her in 1874 for Augusta Holmes, whom he had seduced at Bayreuth. Five children were born of their union: a child died in infancy, and Raphael, the eldest, and only boy, died at the age of sixteen in 1896—but Holmes and Mendes were never married and led a turbulent life together. In November 1885, Mallarme mentioned their impending separation to an English correspondent: "Things are no longer charming between them." By this time, Mendes's liaison with the stage actress Margaret Moreno, a leading lady and a friend of Sarah Bernhardt, was public knowledge. The breach between Mendes and Holmes was briefly repaired—the couple were together again when Renoir's portrait was painted—but the "long concubinage" came to an end in the early 1890s. In 1894 Mendes had his family recognize his children by Holmes, and three years later he married Jane Mette, a writer twenty-six years his junior, with whom he lived peacefully until his death in a train accident in February 1909.
In Augusta Holmes, Mendes had found a woman worthy of him. Daughter of an Irish cavalry officer who had settled in France, she was brought up at Versailles and quickly showed an aptitude for poetry, languages, and music. She was reputed to be a great beauty and posed as the model for Henri Regnault's Thetis Delivering Arms to Achilles, his Prix de Rome of 1866, and was renowned above all for "her golden tresses that fell in waves and beautiful ...eyes that were like the seas of Ireland"—attributes her daughters inherited from her in generous proportions. An enthusiastic Wagnerian and virtu- oso pianist, she was proposed marriage by Camille Saint-Saens and studied under Cesar Franck. She began composing in the 1870s and from this time dramatic symphonies and symphonic poems flowed from her pen. A measure of her success was the commission to write the Ode Triomphale for the Revolution, after Charles Gounod de clined the honor. The work was performed at the Palais de l'lndustrie in September 1889 by some nine hundred singers and three hundred musicians. Like Mendes's writing, her music is largely forgotten today, although the songs have survived better than the large-scale work. When the American opera singer and composer Ethel Smyth met her in 1899, Holmes's fame had already waned, although Smyth praised her Chanson de Gars d'Irlande as a "fierce song" that would have gone around the world had there been any demand for a song in French dedicated to Irish home rule.
The three daughters of this extraordinary couple owed their gold- en hair and lily-white complexions to their mother's Irish good looks, and their medieval names to their father's passion for the era of Ronsard and the poets of the Pleiad. Despite the hostile comments Mendes's behavior generally solicited, his deep affection for his chil- dren and his sense of responsibility toward them emerge clearly. "There is something in Mendes of the Jew who loves his children more than his wife; survival of the race" was the barbed insight of the novelist Jules Renard. The Goncourts, who found Holmes's singing and pontificating intolerable, reported in May 1895 that she detest- ed children, took little interest in them, and that they were now legally in their father's charge. Mendes's grief at the unexpected death of his eldest child, Raphael, in July 1896, is attested to in a moving letter from Mallarme.
Brought up in the Mendes's family home at Chatou by Catulle's sister, the young girls were protected from the unconventional world in which both parents lived. Henri Barbusse, the poet and polemicist who married Helyonne, the youngest daughter, in 1898, recorded the impressions of his first visit to Chatou in a passage that brings Renoir's portrait immediately to mind: "They are all very blond and very pretty, Huguette, Claudine, Helyonne. They live far from the world of artists, actors, and writers .. They are very playful, very cheerful, a little shy, and very well behaved. Claudine [the middle daughter] is perhaps more outgoing, more straightforward, more friendly. Huguette [the eldest], rather more exquisite, with something delicate and quivering about her. Helyonne [the youngest] is a reserved child, but she is extraordinarily beautiful."
We are not informed as to how well Renoir knew the young girls — he often visited Mendes at 4 cite de Trevise, his second-floor Parisian apartment, with its distinctive Japanese curtains, and he must have met the children there many times. In this portrait, however, he achieved both intimacy and monumentality, capturing the beauty and purity of Mendes's three daughters .vith instinctive economy and conviction, and alluding to the energetic literary milieu in which their notorious father moved by the most discreet of symbols: the lemon-colored modern paperback novel on top of the piano.