Pierre-Auguste Renoir | Nu s'essuyant
Created at the height of Renoir’s late oeuvre, Nu s’essuyant comes from the rich period in the artist’s career in which he fully embraced his calling as painter of the nude. The present work encapsulates the supple figuration and harmonious balance of forms that characterize the best of Renoir’s work from the 1910s.
“[The nude] is not a subject of art, but a form of art.”
After the devasting critical reception of Renoir’s The Great Bathers (see fig. 1) at the Sixth International Exposition at Galerie Georges Petit in 1887, Renoir abandoned the subject of the nude. The monumental work—considered by Renoir his masterpiece—polarized critics and colleagues alike for its classicizing aesthetics and went unsold for two years thereafter.
Reeling from this public criticism, Renoir only gradually returned to the motif of the nude in the following decade. By the early 1900s, however, the subject would become the central focus of his painting.
By the turn of the century, Renoir had come to balance the competing forces of artistry which had plagued him in the prior decades. In the early Impressionist days of the 1870s, effusions of light and fleeting sensations trumped realistic renderings (see fig. 2). By the 1880s, a crisis-stricken Renoir traveled to Italy seeking solidity of line and form in his work; his resultant fresco-like paintings met with general confusion and disapproval. By the following decades, however, Renoir at last found a balance of form and light, his fulsome figures revealing luminous models whose “skin…caught the light well.” As Sylvie Patry writes, “His paintings of the very late 1890s and early 1900s show an unprecedented amplitude of body, flexibly in line but solid, even sculptural, in the modeling” (ibid, p. 119). These same advancements carried on into the early 1910s and resulted in enchanting idylls like Nu s’essuyant.
Despite the Modernist vanguard of Fauves, Cubists and Futurists who all but renounced traditional modes of the nude in nature, Renoir delved further into his chosen subject matter and devoted nearly all of his paintings, drawings and sculptures to the theme in his late oeuvre. While Renoir’s soft modeling of form and pink-hued flesh tones are decidedly unique to the artist in this period, his work is indebted to masters that came before. Informed by the care-free Rococo fêtes galantes, the Neo-Classical bathers of Ingres (see fig. 3), and the eddying compositions of Reubens (see fig. 4), the present carries on the legacy of these greats of painting while pushing the boundaries of what figuration can be. As the artist’s son, the filmmaker Jean Renoir recalled, his father once told him that good art has to “burst at the seams” (quoted in ibid., p. 123). Filling nearly the entire composition, the model at center (likely based off his favorite model Gabrielle Renard) commands the viewer’s attention, drawing the eye throughout the sinuous curves of her body which in turn are echoed in the lush greenery around her.
“[Renoir is] our most complete master since Watteau.”
An exceptional late canvas by Renoir, Nu s’essuyant was acquired from the artist shortly after its creation by Maurice Gangnat, a French steel magnate and patron of the Impressionists. Years after his death, the Toledo Museum of Art acquired the exceptional canvas in 1955. With impeccable museum provenance, the present work comes to market for the first time in nearly 70 years.