This painting places us in a busy Parisian street close to six principal figures who fill the foreground. A milling crowd behind them almost completely blocks out the boulevard beyond. The top quarter of the picture is mostly filled by a canopy of at least a dozen umbrellas.
Painted in two stages, with a gap of around four years between each stage, it shows the change in Renoir’s art during the 1880s, when he was beginning to move away from Impressionism and looking instead to classical art. The group on the right, which includes a mother and her two daughters and the woman in profile in the centre, is painted in a characteristically Impressionist manner with delicate feathery touches of rich luminous tones. On the left of the composition, completed during the second stage, Renoir adopted a more linear style. The figures here, including the full-length young woman and the man standing behind her, have clearly defined outlines, precisely drawn features and a greater sense of three-dimensional form.
This painting places us in a busy street in Paris close to six principal figures who fill the foreground. A milling crowd behind them almost completely blocks out the boulevard beyond. The top quarter of the picture is mostly filled by a canopy of at least a dozen umbrellas. The picture was the last of Renoir’s large-scale vertical paintings of modern life before he turned to more traditional and less obviously contemporary subjects such as landscapes, nudes and portraits. It is also significant because both its composition and its painting method already point to a shift in Renoir’s art which took place during the 1880s.
By the time he came to paint The Umbrellas, Renoir was gaining recognition from a small circle of patrons and collectors. But he was also beginning to reassess his art and its relation to Impressionism. As he later commented to the art dealer Ambroise Vollard: ‘I had come to the end of Impressionism, and was reaching the conclusion that I didn’t know how either to paint or draw. In a word, I was at a dead end.’
Like other Impressionist artists, Renoir had worked by applying rapid touches of bright, often unblended colour to create luminous shimmering surfaces. This method was particularly suited to plein air landscapes, such as The Skiff, but he was also searching for more structure and clarity of form. In this, he sought the ‘instruction of the museums’, developing a particular admiration for Ingres, especially his drawings. During a trip to Italy from 1881 to 1882 he was inspired by the frescoes of Raphael in the Villa Farnesina, Rome, and by ancient Roman wall paintings in Naples. He believed that classical art had a ‘purity and grandeur’ that was lacking in his own work, and this perception was perhaps reinforced during a long stay with Cézanne in Provence on his return journey. Not only was The Umbrellas painted during this period of artistic re-evaluation, but it was produced in two stages with a gap of around four years between the first stage (most likely 1880–1) and the second (1884–5). Having put the picture aside, Renoir was prompted to complete it when it was to be included in a major exhibition of Impressionist painting due to open in New York in April 1886.
The Umbrellas is a painting of two distinct styles. During the first stage he worked on it, Renoir painted the group on the right that includes a mother and her two daughters and the woman in profile in the centre who looks up as she opens her umbrella. These people, who are presented side-on, are painted in a characteristically Impressionist manner. Renoir uses delicate feathery touches of rich luminous tones of blue, green and orange, which evoke the sheen of velvet and the textures of feathers and lace. Their soft facial features are not clearly modelled and Renoir avoids crisp contours or outlines.
The people on the left of the painting, including the full-length young woman – a milliner’s assistant holding a bandbox – and the man standing behind her were originally painted using the feathery technique. At this first stage, the milliner’s assistant was also wearing a hat. Renoir then repainted the group during the second stage of the picture’s evolution, abandoning the soft technique for a more linear style. These figures now have clearly defined outlines and precisely drawn features. Renoir’s attention to Ingres is also evident, perhaps, in the flowing outlines of the young woman’s head and torso. The brushwork on this side of the canvas is more even and uniform and helps create a sense of three-dimensional form. The long grey-blue dress of the woman on the left (with its echoes of Cézanne) is also much more structured. Its folds and lines are more clearly described than the blue dresses of the women at the centre, which almost merge into each other.
Changes in women’s fashion also provide clear evidence of the four-year interval in completing the picture. The figures on the right wear expensive clothes which came into vogue around 1881 and remained fashionable the following year. However, the dress of the young woman on the left, which is quite different in cut with more severe lines, only came into fashion around 1885. Like Ingres’s Madame Moitessier, Renoir’s women wear the latest fashions – indeed, a lithograph of his painting On the Terrace was used to illustrate a fashion magazine in 1882. Close technical examination of the picture, including X-rays, has provided further evidence about the stylistic differences between the picture’s two halves. Not only is the underpainting of the two groups completely dissimilar, but their paint surfaces were also built up in quite distinct ways. The figures on the right were initially only very loosely indicated before being gradually refined. However, the figures and forms on the left were clearly defined from the start, and Renoir also made a number of alterations as the work progressed. He even changed his choice of paint for the picture, replacing chrome yellow and cobalt blue (his preferred pigments from the mid-1870s) with Naples yellow and French ultramarine, which produced the distinctive slate-grey tones that are particularly visible in the umbrellas.
We can only speculate as to why Renoir did not resolve the discrepancies in the picture before exhibiting it, as these would have been apparent to contemporary viewers and would have also adversely affected its saleability. He did eventually sell it to Durand-Ruel in 1892 for a very modest price for a picture of this size. Perhaps he believed each group was successful in its own right, but he more likely thought that the painting – particularly the group on the right – was a throwback to the compositions he had moved away from following his trip to Italy. Although Renoir may have left the picture unresolved, it provides a fascinating insight into how he rethought his working methods.
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