Bright crimsons and rubies, hints of gold, lavish transfixing blacks and brilliant whites, combined with the light filled iridescence of the sitter's eyes, mark Portrait de Madame Adela Ocampo de Heimendhal as one of Pierre-Auguse Renoir’s finest society portraits. Renoir was at the height of his powers as a portraitist in 1880; the year before his depiction of Madame Georges Charpentier and her children had been accepted to the Salon of 1879 and, moreover, secured a prominent placement in the year’s most important exhibition. It was during this period, at the end of the 1870s and the beginning of the 1880s, that Renoir finally achieved financial independence, due in a large part to his commissioned portraits of the wives, children and (occasionally) mistresses of the Parisian beau monde.
With this new found economic freedom, the artist acquired larger canvases and rented more studio space. He paid increasing numbers of models and gathered groups of his friends and colleagues around him, embarking on the most important canvases of his career including Le Déjeuner des conotiers, 1881 (The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.) and Danse à Bougival,1883 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). The year the present work was painted he met Aline Charigot, a dressmaker who posed for the artist, and whom he would eventually marry.
Portrait de Madame Adela Ocampo de Heimendhal exemplifies the super-charged years in which his portraits of high society reached their apogee. “Renoir emerges for a brief period between 1878 and 1884,” Colin Bailey relates, “as a society portraitist to rival Whistler or Sargent. Cézanne confided in Zola in the summer of 1880 that Renoir had recently picked up some very good portrait commissions…. Yet Renoir’s portraits of the beau monde… are generally as affectionate and engaging as his portraits of bohemian friends and fellow artists. His ‘oeil bienveillant’ operates a sort of aesthetic leveling in which actresses and circus performers are presented with the same charm and directness as chatelaines and society hostesses, in which the children of the petit bourgeois clerks and shopkeepers are as commanding as the pampered offspring of provincial senators or the privileged sons and daughters of bankers and doctors” (C. Bailey in Renoir’s Portraits, Impressions of an Age (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago & The Kimbell Museum of Art, Fort Worth, 1997-98, p. 4).
The present work is one of the few Impressionist paintings in which the color black figures prominently in the artist’s palette. Although black paint was frequently used by Manet, 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 in the sitter’s dress, the luxuriant tresses of her hair and the body of her hat, is a striking and deliberate contrast to the luminous pastel hues that are more commonly found in early Impressionist pictures. The dark tones of Madame Ocampo de Heimendhal’s dress and hair create a stunning contrast to the warm hues of her skin, accentuating her striking facial features, in particular her penetrating eyes that become the central point of the composition. Depictions of black garments “presented a particular challenge: how to record gradations of tint in the absence of color. Notably, by the 1860s, it had become quite common to wear black, especially in the afternoon, when many intimate portraits by Impressionists like Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot were set. In the late 1860 and early 1870s, low-bodiced silk dresses with short, flat sleeves to which transparent black sleeves could be attached or over which a separate fitted bodice of grenadine… or tulle could be worn—were particularly à la mode. Thus, not all women in black should be assumed to be in mourning” (Impressionism, Fashion, & Modernity (exhibition catalogue), The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York & Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 2013, pp. 108-09). Indeed, Adela Ocampo de Heimendhal possesses all of the attributes of a fashionable young woman of the day from the pin at her neckline and glittering earrings to the feathered hat and of-the-moment black afternoon dress whose varying degrees of translucency speak to Renoir'd masterful handling.
Renoir’s exposure to dress and fashion was perhaps deeper than any of his fellow Impressionists. “Renoir’s intimate knowledge of fashion came from his family, which included tailors and dressmakers. His father was a tailor, his mother a as [sic] seamstress, and his oldest sister, Lisa, was a dressmaker who, in 1864, married Charles Leray, a fashion illustrator. Another brother, Victor, was a tailor in Paris, who married a dressmaker, and moved to Saint Petersburg, as did numerous French tailors of the period. Renoir himself, before embarking on a career as a porcelain painter at the end of the 1850s, was advised by his family to become a fashion plate designer” (ibid., pp. 250-25).
The present work has a distinguished provenance. Commissioned by the sitter in 1880, the work has remained in her family’s collection until the present day.
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