In 1888, Renoir wrote to his dealer Durand-Ruel about his latest efforts: ‘I have taken up again, never to abandon it, my old style, soft and light of touch. This is to give you some idea of my new and final manner of painting – like Fragonard, but not so good (quoted in J. House, Renoir in the Barnes Foundation, New Haven, 2012, p.121). The present work epitomises Renoir’s ‘intentions’ in its joyous simplicity. The theme of the woman styling her hair and, more broadly, that of La Toilette, has an illustrious artistic lineage dating back to Renaissance vanitas portraits, in which the woman gazes in front of the mirror and treats herself, along with the viewer, as an object of visual pleasure. This subject was of central importance to Renoir’s œuvre. ‘The ostensible theme’, John House has written, ‘is self-adornment and women’s preoccupation with appearance; but the vision that is being realised is of course Renoir’s own: while the model prepares herself for display, she displays herself to the painter, who posed her thus, and to the viewer of the picture’ (Renoir, exhibition catalogue., Hayward Gallery, London, 1985, p. 282). Renoir’s boudoir paintings uniquely fall into the middle ground between the strongly sensual Orientalist works of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and the works produced by Edgar Degas in the 1880s, which present the act of hair-combing as a banal daily routine, wholly subverting any provocative connotations. Renoir, however, delights in the extravagantly long and undone hair of his models; his paintings herald the femininity of young women by eschewing overt eroticism in favour of a quiet intimacy.
Jeune fille se peignant exhibits Renoir’s skill in conveying the tangibility of his sitter’s flesh, drawing inspiration from the art of Titian, Rubens and Velázquez. By using a constellation of soft, feathery brushstrokes, Renoir captures the nuances of colour in a delicate interplay of pale tones, creating a lustrous surface and evoking the fluttering passage of light as it crosses her supple skin. Her body has a palpable weight and solidity, achieved by careful delineations between shadow and light, lending her form a new monumentality. The model is seemingly unaware of the artist’s presence and the harmonious palette applied uniformly by the touch of Renoir’s caressing brush, heightens even further the effect of her private, self-contained world.
This ‘new and final manner’ that Renoir described to Durand-Ruel was an immediate success, bringing long-awaited fame for the artist in the 1890s. In 1892, the French State purchased Renoir’s Jeunes filles au piano for the Musée Luxembourg as a mark of official recognition, which Renoir regarded as one of his crowning achievements. A younger generation of artists and critics also embraced Renoir’s recent works, with their air of timelessness appealing to Symbolist artists. The Nabi painter Maurice Denis observed: ‘An idealist? No. A naturalist? If that’s what we want to call him. Renoir has limited himself to translating his personal emotions, the entirety of nature and the entirety of dream, with methods personal to him. He has composed with the pleasures of his eyes wonderful bouquets of women and flowers. And since he is large of heart and strong of will, he has created only beautiful things’ (quoted in A. Distel, Renoir, New York, 2010, p. 289).
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