By the time he painted the present work, Renoir was renowned as the finest portrait painter of the Impressionist circle. His portraits of young women (fig. 2), most famously of Gabrielle (fig. 3), who would become his favourite model, received overwhelming praise by his contemporaries and were admired for their sweet docility and sensual, albeit innocent, allure. In its elegance and suppleness, Madame Valtat
is an accomplished example of Renoir’s mature portraiture, capturing the beauty of the sitter with a sense of grace and serenity. Portrayed in profile, the sitter is shown alone and self-absorbed, seemingly unaware of being watched and painted. Renoir used a palette of soft colours to render the woman’s robed bust and monochrome background, contrasting them with the warm glow of her face and her bright red hair and lips.
The subject of the present work is Suzanne Valtat, née
Noël (1879-1967), wife of the painter Louis Valtat. Valtat and Suzanne (fig. 1) married in Versailles in 1900, and their son Jean was born in 1908. Soon after their marriage Suzanne would become the artist’s favourite model and the subject of numerous portraits. Louis Valtat met Renoir around 1897 and remained close friends with him over the years, visiting him several times in the South of France. Renoir first stayed in Cagnes in 1898 and returned there often in his later life. In an undated letter to his friend and fellow painter Albert André he wrote: ‘I found for Valtat a little house with a garden two steps from me and at a nicer location, in full sunshine. […] Valtat will only be staying there during the summer’ (quoted in Louis Valtat à l’aube du fauvism
e (exhibition catalogue), op. cit
., p. 301, translated from French).
Together with Renoir and the painter Georges d’Espagnat, Valtat stayed at Magagnosc near Grasse in 1900. Following this sojourn Renoir recommended Valtat to Ambroise Vollard, who became Valtat’s dealer several months later. In his book Souvenirs d’un marchand de tableaux
, Vollard recounts how he was introduced to Valtat through Renoir, and recalls Renoir’s own memories of their first encounter: ‘I was in Brittany […] when during a walk I observed a young painter working on a study. I was struck by the harmony of colours he was applying on his canvas. It was Valtat’ (quoted in ibid
., p. 300, translated from French).
Valtat visited Renoir at Cagnes again in late March or early April 1903. On 6th December of that year, Renoir wrote to him: ‘My dear Valtat, […] I am better but the weather is hardly good, at the moment I am doing nothing, it would be kind if the two of you came to Cagnes for two or three days. […] I would take the opportunity to make a study of your wife’ (ibid
., p. 304, translated from French). Louis and Suzanne Valtat arrived in Cagnes on 8th December, and it was during this stay that the present portrait of Mme Valtat was painted. It was probably also at this time that Valtat executed several drawings and a woodcut of Renoir, as well as an oil of Renoir’s son Pierre.