Renoir's vivid depiction of gladioli and lilies, spilling from their vase and surrounded by succulent fruit, dates from the prime of his career in the late 1880s. The composition exemplifies the Impressionist techniques of rendering light and shadow that Renoir and Monet introduced at Impressionist group exhibitions in Paris. Nature morte, fleurs et fruits, painted when Renoir's career had reached its ascendancy, is a wonderful demonstration of his key style applied to a floral motif.
What is particularly remarkable in this splendid composition is the artist's ability to replicate the pure luxuriance of a fruit and floral arrangement. As was the case for many of the Impressionist painters, Renoir did not need to rely on the trompe l'oeil techniques that had been utilised by artists for centuries in order to render his still-life so convincingly. Instead, he drew upon his own creative ingenuity and his initial impressions of the image, rendering it with extraordinary freshness. Few artists of his generation would approach this subject with the richness and sensitivity that is demonstrated in this picture and in others that he completed in the late 1880s.
Durand-Ruel had purchased the present work, together with a related oil of the same date (fig. 1) from Renoir in September 1890. In his discussion of Nature morte, fleurs et fruits, John House wrote about the appeal of this subject-matter: 'Still lifes were one of the Impressionists' most readily saleable commodities. Durand-Ruel bought many still lifes from both Renoir and Monet when he began to purchase their work regularly in the early 1880s; from the late 1880s onwards still life became a regular part of Renoir's stock-in-trade, sometimes in the form of elaborated, fully worked compositions, like the present picture, but often with more casual informal studies' (J. House, in Renoir (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., 1985-86, p. 255).
House further discusses the present work: 'Form and colour alike are carefully arranged here: above the nuanced light colours of the tablecloth, interwoven contrasts of red and green revolve around the blue and orange patterned vase. The forms are clear, mainly defined by contrast with what lies beyond them. The drawing, though, is not precise; the brushwork seeks out the internal rhythms of the various elements, setting their cursive patterns against the unobtrusively brushed verticals of the background. The second peach from the left is a text book example of modelling by colour gradation – from the yellow on its lit side, through orange and various reds to duller mauves and beiges and deeper purples; by contrast, the shinier surfaces of the grapes are modelled by off-white highlights. Renoir was to use the same vase again in two versions of his Young girls at the piano' (ibid, p. 255; fig. 2).
It is not surprising that a floral still-life, especially one as lush and abundant as the present work, would have appealed to Renoir. Both he and Monet had painted several floral arrangements in the early 1880s (fig. 3), and the present work is a continuation of this theme that proved to be so successful for both artists in the first half of the decade. As was noted at the time of a retrospective exhibition in 1988, 'For an artist enamoured with color, flowers provide a perfect subject – infinitely varied, malleable to any arrangement. Several of Renoir's most beautiful paintings [...] are flower pieces. Renoir painted many pictures of flowers in addition to the more numerous figures and landscapes. Flowers appear frequently in his paintings as hat decorations or as part of the landscape behind figures even when they are not the main motif. Renoir himself said that when painting flowers he was able to paint more freely and boldly, without the mental effort he made with a model before him. Also, he found the painting of flowers to be helpful in painting human figures' (Renoir Retrospective (exhibition catalogue), Nagoya City Art Museum, 1988, p. 247).
Fig. 1, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Fleurs et fruits, 1889, oil on canvas. Sold: Sotheby's, New York, 3rd May 2006
Fig. 2, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jeunes filles au piano, 1892, oil on canvas, Private Collection
Fig. 3, Claude Monet, Chrysanthèmes, 1882, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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