Dr. Albert Charpentier, Paris
Private Collection, Biarritz
Acquired by the present owner in 2001
Paris, Salle de la Renaissance, Oeuvres des XIXe et XXe siècles, 1938
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Un siècle de peinture française, 1938
"Quelques Maîtres des XVIIIe et XIXe siècles," La Renaissance, Paris, June 1938, no. 3, illustrated p. 43
"Maîtres des 18e et 19e," L'Art Vivant, Paris, 1938, no. 223
Beaux Arts, Paris, May 6, 1938, no. 279, illustrated p. 1
George Besson, Renoir, Paris, 1938, illustrated pl. 15
François Daulte, Auguste Renoir, Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, Figures 1860-1890, vol. I, Lausanne, 1971, no. 114, illustrated
Elda Fezzi & Jacqueline Henry, Renoir, période impressionniste 1869-1883, Paris, 1985, no. 134, illustrated p. 95
Guy-Patrice & Michel Dauberville, Renoir, catalogue raisonné des tableaux, pastels, dessins et aquarelles, vol. I, Paris, 2007, no. 414, illustrated p. 436
The transfixing young woman in Renoir's portrait of 1874 is Nini, a young model from Montmartre who has come to be known by the ironic and unsuitable nickname "Fish Face." She was the same model who posed for Renoir's famous early masterpiece La Loge (fig. 1), now at The Courtauld Gallery in London, and the smaller version, sold at Sotheby's London earlier this year. According to François Daulte, the present work was probably a direct study for the Courtauld painting. John House wrote about the sitter: "Georges Rivière, a close friend of Renoir in these years, noted that Nini modelled for many of his paintings between 1874 and 1880; she had 'an admirable head of golden-blonde hair' and was 'the ideal model, punctual, serious, discreet', though finally she disappointed her watchful mother by marrying a minor actor. When she modelled for Renoir, Rivière noted, the artist often depicted her after a formal posing session sewing or reading in the corner of his studio. [...] Nini's reported name 'gueule de raie' suggests that her face did not conform to current canons of beauty. The wide range of subjects and types of picture for which she seems to have posed highlights the fact that modelling was a form of acting or role-playing that enabled the painter to construct a distinct identity for the figure within each painting" (J. House, Renoir at the Theatre: Looking at 'La Loge' (exhibition catalogue), The Courtauld Gallery, London, 2008, pp. 32-33).
The bejewelled Nini, with her plunging neckline and lacy décolletage, is the embodiment of the modern parisienne. While her formal, frontal pose, with her arms crossed in front of her, indicates that she sat for the artist in his studio, Renoir's focus on her appearance and her strong gaze suggests the setting of the theater box, in which Nini appears in La Loge. Renoir and his contemporaries including Degas and Mary Cassatt (fig. 3) were fascinated by the urban spectacle and found in theater a rich source of inspiration. The loge or theater box was at the time only affordable to the well-to-do members of society, and women would always sit at the front of the loge, with their male companion in the back. Writing about the subject of theater in Impressionist painting, Judith A. Barter observed: "Of all the arts in nineteenth-century France, theatre was the most popular. To many it seemed that all of Paris lived at the theatre. Nowhere else could one experience such a lavish display of light, color, ornament, extravagance, and society. By far the most opulent theatre in Paris was the Opéra" (J. A. Barter, in Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman (exhibition catalogue), The Art Institute of Chicago, 1998, p. 46).
Unlike today, in the nineteenth century the lights during a performance were never completely extinguished, allowing the spectators not only to read a libretto, but also to watch other members of the audience. Thus, the artist's focus on Nini's gaze can be interpreted not only as an insight into the personality of his model, but also an important psychological and social aspect of theater-going in Renoir's time. Looking straight at the viewer, the woman appears unperturbed in her dual role as spectator and spectacle. With her dark dress and hair, Nini appears to be illuminated within the darkness of the loge, as indeed she would have been by the gas lamps of the opera. Her confident expression and pose suggest that she is ready to be admired not only by the viewer but also by the rest of the theater-goers. In the larger painting, however, an ironic twist is added by the male figure who seems to be observing other members of the audience rather than his female companion.
Portrait de Nini is one of the few Impressionist paintings in which the color black figures largely in the artist's palette. Although black paint was frequently used by Manet (fig. 2), the Impressionists as a general rule rarely incorporated it into their compositions. Renoir, however, has taken a risk with his use of black here that is altogether quite modern. The richness of the black, primarily the woman's dress, is a striking and deliberate contrast to the luminous pastel tones that are more commonly found in early Impressionist pictures. The dark tones of Nini's dress and hair create a stunning contrast to the warm hues of her skin, accentuating her remarkable facial features, in particular her penetrating eyes that become the central point of the composition.
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