While Renoir’s bathing scenes of the mid-1880s present crisp lines and fresco-like renderings of his subjects inspired by Ingres, “by the 1890s, Renoir’s hard-edged style yielded to a fluid melding of figure and ground, and particularities gave way to a more generalized and idealized approach” (A. Dumas & J. Collins, Renoir’s Women, London & New York, 2005, p. 80). Dated circa 1895, Femme se coiffant au bord de la mer presents a brilliant encapsulation of an Arcadian-inspired reverie painted with the hallmark brushstrokes and effulgent light of the Impressionists. Émile Verhaeren, a contemporary poet and art critic of Renoir, highlighted the quality of Renoir's specific handling of flesh: "Here...is an utterly new vision, a quite unexpected interpretation of reality to solicit our imagination. Nothing is fresher, more alive and pulsating with blood and sexuality, than these bodies and faces as he portrays them. Where have they come from, those light and vibrating tones that caress arms, necks, and shoulders, and give a sensation of soft flesh and porousness?” (quoted in G. Muesham, ed., French Painters and Paintings from the Fourteenth Century to Post-Impressionism: A Library of Art Criticism, New York, 1970, pp. 511-12).
A similar work recently lent to the Musée Renoir in Cagnes-sur-Mer by Prince Albert II of Monaco and dated five years earlier (see fig. 2) highlights an important quality in Renoir’s painting from this period—the inconsequence of location. While the central figure, pose, and drapery in the two works echo each other, the present composition is set along a cerulean seaside, replacing the wooded promontory of the earlier picture. As Verhaeren states, “the backgrounds are suffusions of air and light; they are vague because they must not distract us" (ibid., p. 512).
John House writes the following on Renoir's fascination with the subject of the female nude in outdoor settings: "On his travels Renoir painted many landscapes and informal outdoor subjects, but his more serious efforts were reserved for themes which tread the borderline between everyday life and idyll-themes with obvious echoes of eighteenth-century art. He painted a long series of nudes, mainly young girls in outdoor settings, whom in a letter he called his 'nymphs.' Mainly single figures at first, he brought them together in groups around 1897 in several pictures of girls playing which translate the subject of the 1887 Bathers into a fluent informality very reminiscent of Fragonard's Bathers” (J. House in Renoir (exhibition catalogue), The Hayward Gallery, London, 1985, pp. 250-51).
This obsession would remain constant throughout the artist’s career, eventually building to his final canvases; the iconic Rubensian compositions of nude bathers rendered in luminous washes of pink and gold. The recent exhibition at The Clark Art Institute, Renoir: The Body, The Senses, surveyed the evolution of the artist's figural works, featuring earlier paintings like Blonde Bather which match the quality and tenor of the present composition (see fig. 3). “It was by his images of women that Renoir wished to be judged as an artist… His late works, in which the resplendent nudes represent a mythical ideal of woman, fused with the earthly paradise that Renoir always sought, are a fitting final testament.” (A. Dumas & J. Collins, Renoir’s Women, London & New York, 2005, p. 85).
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