Femmes dans un jardin is a magnificent landscape executed during Renoir's 'classic' Impressionist period, treating the artist's favorite subject, that of the bourgeois classes in their leisure pursuits. It depicts two figures, viewed from afar walking in the garden, softly fusing into the background. The lower part of the composition is dominated by the colourful flowers executed in short dabs of luminous pigment, throwing a purple shadow over the otherwise sunlit path that leads the viewer's eye towards the two women in the distance. The larger of the two figures appears to be holding flowers she has probably just picked, and her blue dress and white parasol are illuminated by a diffused light that filters through the trees. The woman behind her is rendered in darker pigments and with less detail, as if she is just about to appear from the shadow of the trees. It is through a skilfully orchestrated contrast between the bright primary tones in the foreground and the more subdued hues in the background, that Renoir creates a sense of depth and perspective.
While in a number of paintings on this theme the artist focused on the details of his figures and their costume (fig. 1), in the present work his attention was almost entirely on the nature surrounding them. The lush, rich treatment of the park with its flowerbeds, trees and the path in Femmes dans un jardin demonstrates the delight Renoir took in painting nature, drenched in light and shimmering with color. The artist's work of this period is characterized by the harmonious tonality and bright palette so evident in the present work. Quick dashes of paint are used to depict the flowers bathed in the warm sunshine, longer drags of the brush for the trees; dark pigments in the background create deep recesses, and brilliant highlights of pure white depict the sun glinting off the white parasol, echoed in the flowerbed in the foreground and connecting the near and far perspectives. Lawrence Gowing described the technique Renoir used during this classic Impressionist period: "The ways that Renoir's contemporaries painted were each comparatively consistent. Renoir decided how he would paint empirically, if not waywardly. The even granulation of colour in sunlight with which Monet and Pissarro explored landscape in the seventies was only one of the styles that opened to him. Liquid or crumbled dappling was equally possible [...] bright and silvery, streaked or flecked with detail, it seemed on impulse" (Lawreince Gowing, Renoir, London, 1985, p. 33).
The present work was painted in a suburban area along the river Seine near Paris, possibly Chatou or Argenteuil, the area that was the focus of avant-garde landscape painting in the 1870s. Unlike Monet, Renoir did not move out of the center of Paris but he frequently joined Monet at Argenteuil where the two artists painted together. As John Rewald explained: "Monet had rented a little house close to the water, and whenever Renoir came to stay with him they again put up their easels in front of the same views, studying the same motifs. They both now adopted a comma-like brushstroke, even smaller than they had chosen for their works at La Grenouillère, a brushstroke which permitted them to record every nuance they observed. The surfaces of their canvases were thus covered with a vibrating tissue of small dots and strokes, none of which by themselves defines any form. Yet they contribute to recreating the particular features of the chosen motif and especially the sunny air which bathed it, and marked trees, grass, houses, or water with the specific character of the day, if not the hour" (John Rewald, The History of Impressionism, New York, 1973, pp. 281-284). A comparison between the present work and Monet's Le Parc Monceau of 1878 (fig. 2) reveals their shared aesthetic at this time.
During the early Impressionist period, Renoir, Monet and their contemporaries faced the dilemma of choosing to paint idyllic, unspoilt nature or the rapidly increasing signs of modernity and industrialisation. In the 1860s Renoir was still anchored in the traditional approach to landscape painting, focusing entirely on nature and excluding the signs of advancement and urbanisation from his works, but already by 1869 a change started to occur. The present work shows Renoir's shift of focus towards the leisurely aspects of contemporary life and the "pleasure and the existence of a simple, unspoiled world [...] Renoir's images of the Parisian suburbs along the Seine [...] generally assert that view with their stretches of unsullied nature or individuals at leisure" (Steven Kern, A Passion for Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark collect, 1916-1951 (exhibition catalogue), Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1996, p. 72).
Fig. 1, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Promenade, 1870, oil on canvas, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Fig. 2, Claude Monet, Le Parc Monceau, 1878, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Fig. 3, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Fleurs de cueillette,1875-76, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Oil on canvas
New York, Durand-Ruel Galleries, Boudin to Cézanne, 1938, no. 17
Washington, D.C., Phillips Memorial Gallery, 1939 (on loan)
New York, Duveen Galleries, Renoir. Centennial Loan Exhibition (1841-1941), 1941, no. 5, illustrated in the catalogue
New York, Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Renoir, 1958, no. 6, illustrated in the catalogue
New York, Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Renoir: In Commemoration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of Renoir's Death, 1969, no. 9, illustrated in the catalogue
New York, Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Renoir, the Gentle Rebel, 1974, no. 8, illustrated in the catalogue
21 5/8 by 25 3/4 in. 55 by 65.5 cm
Elda Fezzi, L'Opera completa di Renoir nel periodo impressionista (1869-1883), Milan, 1972, no. 105, illustrated p. 94
Renoir Landscapes 1865-1883 (exhibition catalogue), The National Gallery, London, no. 40, 2007, illustrated in color p. 187 (as dating from circa 1876)
Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris (acquired from the artist in 1891)
Sam Salz, Inc., New York (acquired from the above by 1941)
Paul Rosenberg & Co., New York
Mrs Thelma Chrysler Foy, New York (acquired from the above)
Private Collection (by descent from the above and sold: Sotheby's, New York, May 11, 1993, lot 13)
Private Collection, London
Sale: Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg, New York, November 6, 2000, lot 9
Private Collection (acquired at the above sale and sold: Sotheby's, London, June 19, 2006, lot 17)
Acquired at the above sale