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Bust of a Woman

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
French, 1841-1919

Bust of a Woman
1917

oil on canvas
9 ½  x 8 in. (25 × 21 cm.)

A few years prior to painting this portrait, Renoir visited Munich, where he became overwhelmed by the extraordinary collection in the Pinakothek showcasing the work of the great Flemish master, Peter Paul Rubens. Renoir already knew of Rubens’s masterworks in the Louvre, having spent considerable time as a young artist copying Rubens’s monumental series of canvases of the life of the Queen, Marie de’ Medici, later mother of Louis XIII, that lined the walls of the Louvre’s Grande Galerie. Rubens was known for his distinctive color palette and dynamic manner of painting. Renoir was also fascinated with the art of the 19th century Romantic artist, Eugene Delacroix. Elements of both these artists’ styles have been captured by Renoir in painting this nude woman. Renoir would spend his life searching for “the secrets of the [old] masters”, through looking and copying, even though he was widely considered by his peers and the public to be a modern Great Master himself. 

This painting is recorded in Guy-Patrice and Michel Dauberville, Renoir: Catalogue Raisonne des Tableaux, Pastels, Dessins et Aquarelles V (2014), no. 4212

Biography

April 2024 marks the 150th anniversary of the very first Impressionist exhibition that was organized by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his close friend Claude Monet along with Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, and other artists. The exhibition was not well received by the critics but the artists who took part would become among the most significant and recognizable names of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They remain so today, and because of this it is impossible to go back to that time when their works were so outside the mainstream, to appreciate just how groundbreaking they were. During his lifetime Renoir would find fortune and fame and be considered one of the greatest living painters, revered by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, who both owned his works and felt his influence.

Renoir was born in 1841 in Limoges, a town about 250 miles (400km) south of Paris, and which had been renowned for its porcelain production since the 1770s. A few years after his birth his family moved to Paris. Unlike many of his contemporaries who came from decidedly middle and upper-class backgrounds, Renoir was born into poverty. His father was a tailor, his mother a seamstress’s assistant, and the young Renoir was forced to leave school aged 12 to find work. He was given a job at Lévy-Frères, a Paris porcelain factory, where he would decorate their wares in the style of the French Old Masters: Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard, all artists whose work was associated with a joyful frivolity. Renoir lived close to the Louvre, which housed the most astonishing collection of art from antiquities to present day. Its collection would become central to Renoir’s artistic development, especially once he received permission to sit and copy the ancient Roman sculptures, and the paintings of the Renaissance. He was enamored by those whose works were saturated by intense color. Entry to the Louvre was free and he spent many hours studying its treasures. He eventually received a more formal artistic education, in a drawing studio and in a school of fine art.

Renoir came of age at a time when he felt the tension between the avant-garde and the establishment. Compared to his contemporaries who had private incomes, Renoir needed to earn a living, and often used unpaid models in the form of his friends and fellow artists. In 1874 he helped organize the inaugural Impressionist exhibition in the studio of the photographer Nadar, at 35 Boulevard des Capucines in Paris (then called The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Printmakers). This was a time of political, cultural, and technological flux in Europe: Renoir was conscripted for the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (but did not fight) and photography was gaining preeminence and competing directly with the Fine Arts. Renoir was a proponent of the hand-made over the machine, and lamented what he saw as the lost system of historical artistic patronage. Eventually, with the help of his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, and particularly recognition by the American audience who “didn’t mock us at all”, Renoir would become wealthy and famous.

As a person Renoir was extraordinarily social, craving the company of friends. He also desired to work alongside other artists, which some found intensely irritating, like Monet who preferred isolation. Renoir was also secretive, tended towards placatory behavior and would modulate his opinion to the circumstances. His biographer described him as “conflict-avoiding, double-talking … shrewd and even sneaky”. For much of his artistic career, he was not just seriously ill but also physically restricted. At the age of 47, in the late 1880s, he developed rheumatoid arthritis which progressively got worse. The effects of this inflammatory illness were debilitating, and his latter years were spent in a wheelchair where he painted despite his fingers unable to grip anything properly. His gnarled-up hands were bound with strips of cloth into which paintbrushes (and his ever-present cigarettes) were inserted by an assistant. Despite this, Renoir was extraordinarily prolific, described as a “body without a soul” if not working. He painted every day, producing well over 4600 paintings and other works of art over the course of his life.

Renoir’s painting style and especially the subject matter he focused on, changed significantly throughout his life, although certain themes and “types” preoccupied him: Genre paintings (everyday people in their everyday life), portraits, landscapes, and of course, and especially, his sensual nudes. In contrast to his failing body, Renoir’s art works rejected the obvious despair of his physical reality, and his paintings exuded a sense of joy and pleasure until the very end.