Before the 1880s Renoir painted very few nudes. But the artist’s journey to Italy in 1881, where he was absorbed by Roman sculpture and Renaissance painting, rekindled his interest and he began painting them far more often. This small and intimate picture is probably one of a series made during the second half of the 1880s. Renoir has added some recognisably contemporary touches, such as the striped fabric of the towel or the discarded dress that the model is sitting on, and the fact that her hair, which she is fixing (or unfixing), is in one of the fashions of the time. But by showing the figure seated on a rock by a pool or a stream – suggested by the flash of bright blue on the left-hand side of the picture – rather than a contemporary interior, he was reflecting the longer tradition of classical nudes.
Before the 1880s Renoir painted very few nudes. The National Gallery owns a rare exception, A Nymph by a Stream, which depicts his lover at the time, Lise Tréhot, as one of the mythical nymphs or naiads described in classical art and literature and also eighteenth-century French painting. But the artist’s journey to Italy in 1881, where he was absorbed by Roman sculpture and Renaissance painting, rekindled his interest in depicting nudes in a way that echoed the classical tradition. He began painting them far more often and this intimate picture (which is only about 39 by 29 cm) is probably one of a series made during the second half of the 1880s.
His attraction to the nude coincided with that of Edgar Degas, his friend and fellow artist. Degas had explored the form for many years and in 1886, in the last Impressionist Exhibition (in which Renoir also exhibited), he showed several new pastels depicting naked or partially clothed women washing themselves.
The tradition of depicting the subjects unaware that they are being watched went back to ancient Greek myths, such as that of Diana and Actaeon and to biblical stories of Bathsheba and Susannah. But Degas and Renoir differed in their approaches to it. Degas masked the link to earlier traditions by focusing on depicting ordinary women in contemporary interior settings, sometimes viewed from a strikingly unusual angle. His After the Bath, Woman drying Herself was probably made a few years later, but it is typical of the sort of poses he preferred. It is also very similar to the pose Renoir has chosen in this painting (and one which is reminiscent of other Degas pastels). He has also added some recognisably contemporary touches, such as the striped fabric of the towel or discarded dress that the model is sitting on, and the fact that her hair, which she is fixing (or unfixing), is in one of the fashions of the time. The depiction of hair under her arm is something which would have been seen only rarely, if at all, in such paintings before the mid-nineteenth century. But by showing the figure seated on a rock by a pool or a stream – suggested here by the flash of bright blue on the left-hand side of the picture – rather than a contemporary interior, Renoir is reflecting the longer tradition of classical nudes much more explicitly.
Renoir was also fascinated by how best to capture the sensuousness of his subjects. He wrote: ‘I look at the nude; there are myriads of tiny tints in flesh. I must find the ones that will make the flesh on my canvas live and quiver.’ In this painting, he sets the predominantly pink flesh tones against the greens of the background, which makes them appear all the more vibrant – these are complementary colours, which seem more intense when placed together. The sense of quiver or vibrancy he sought comes perhaps from the blurring effect of his brushwork, which suggests rather than precisely delineates the model and her surroundings.
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