Painted in 1888, the present work depicts a voluptuous and nubile young woman bathing in a fresh pond. Her right hand covers her genitals and her left hand is over her heart, a large lock of wet, Titian-red hair caught between her hand and her breast. Her pose is unmistakably that of the Venus de' Medici (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) and the Capitoline Venus (fig. 1), two of the most famous sculptures from classical antiquity, and her gesture of touching her wet hair alludes to the Venus Anadyomene, a lost but canonical work by Apelles that artists have emulated since the Renaissance. Moreover, Renoir's painting explicitly recalls Botticelli's Nascità di Venere (fig. 2), where the Venus de' Medici and Venus Anadyomene were similarly combined. In light of this tradition, Renoir's bather must be read either as Venus herself or as a young woman who has innocently and temporarily acquired the mythic stature and ideal beauty of Venus. Jean Renoir recalls his father saying:
I like painting best when it looks eternal without boasting about it: an everyday eternity, revealed on the street-corner: a servant girl, pausing a moment as she scours a saucepan, and becoming a Juno on Olympus. (Quoted in J. Renoir, Renoir, My Father, Boston, 1958, p. 233)
Perhaps it is this kind of momentary transformation of the sublunar that Renoir had in mind when he painted the present work.
Throughout his career, Renoir associated the female nude with classical subject matter and style. His first nude, Vénus et l'amour (Daulte, no. 3; Private Collection) is of a mythological subject, as are nearly all his early female nudes, such as Diane chasseresse (Daulte, no. 30; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). Renoir was especially fascinated by the Venus de' Medici, whose pose reappears in La baigneuse au griffon (fig. 3) and in an etching from around 1910. In 1888 Renoir made yet another painting of a young bather in the pose of the statue (Daulte, no. 553; Private Collection).
The present picture descends from Renoir's studies for Les grandes baigneuses (Daulte, no. 514; Museum of Art, Philadelphia). The artist intended that canvas to be a major statement of his aesthetic principles, and he devised its composition slowly between 1885 and 1887; more than twenty drawings and oil-sketches record the evolution of the work. As painted, Les grandes baigneuses features five female nudes, but preliminary studies show as many as seven nudes; one drawing includes a standing nude at the right edge of the sheet whose pose is nearly identical to that of the woman in the present picture (fig. 4).
In the mid-1880s, the nude took on a greater importance for Renoir than it had earlier in his career. As Berthe Morisot recorded in her diary in January 1886, "[Renoir] tells me that the nude seems to be one of the indispensable forms of art" (quoted in B.E. White, Renoir, His Life, Art and Letters, New York, 1984, p. 174). Renoir hoped that Les grandes baigneuses would be recognized as a masterpiece to rival great interpretations of the subject from the past. It is well known that the immediate origins of Les grandes baigneuses lay in a frieze of nude nymphs by Girardon at Versailles. But Renoir also looked to French masters of the eighteenth-century, such as Fragonard and Boucher. His interest in eighteenth-century French painting may have been stimulated in part by conversations with Edmond de Goncourt, whom he knew through Madame Charpentier. In a letter to Durand-Ruel in 1885, he wrote:
I've taken up again the old sweet and light way of painting... It's nothing new, but it's a sequel to 18th-century paintings... This is to explain my new technique (Fragonard, but not so good)... Believe me, I'm not comparing myself to an 18th-century master. But I have to explain to you in what direction I'm working. (Quoted in ibid, pp. 157-158)
Renoir also meant to emulate Raphael, whose paintings he had admired during his visit to Italy in 1881; in reference to Les grandes baigneuses, he said, "I believe I am going to beat Raphael and that people in the year 1887 are going to be amazed" (quoted in ibid., p. 166). However, Renoir was motivated not only by his ambition to rival the greatest exemplars of Old Master Painting and to establish his place in the history of art, but also by his hope of creating a commercially viable alternative to Bouguereau's highly popular paintings of nudes.
The lighting and color of the present picture are also worthy of note. Renoir's paintings of the 1880s are distinguished from his earlier works by their lighter and warmer tone. This luminosity is one of the outstanding features of such masterpieces of the period as La baigneuse blonde (Daulte, no. 470; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts). Several factors contributed to Renoir's move to a lighter palette, including his visit to Italy in 1881. As he wrote to Madame Charpentier:
I studied the museum in Naples a lot, the paintings from Pompeii are extremely interesting from all points of view, and so I stay in the sun, not to do portraits in broad daylight, but by warming up and doing a lot of looking, I will, I think, have gained that grandeur and simplicity of ancient painters. Raphael, who didn't work outdoors, had nevertheless studied sunlight since his frescoes are full of it. Thus having seen the outdoors so much, I ended up seeing only the great harmonies without caring any more about small details that extinguish sunlight instead of making it blaze. (Quoted in ibid.., p. 115)
French painters of the eighteenth-century, especially Boucher and Fragonard, also influenced Renoir in this respect. As we have already seen, Renoir associated his return to a "sweet and light way of painting" with his study of these masters.
The variegated, polychrome background of the present work, with its pale blues and greens, is typical of Renoir's most attractive paintings from this era. The pigments are applied in areas of allied color, and the brushwork is open and active. Emile Verhaeren, a Belgian critic and poet, in 1885 praised Renoir's brushwork and palette:
Renoir's brush is superb. His art is most certainly of French lineage. He is descended from the magnificent eighteenth century, when Watteau, Fragonard, Greuze, Madame Vigée-Lebrun, Angelica Kauffmann, and Drouais were producing works of marvelous inventiveness. The resonant and high pitched quality of his color, however, is more reminiscent of that great genius Eugène Delacroix. (Quoted in ibid., p. 155)
The 1880s were one of the most productive and fertile decades of Renoir's career, and the present painting exemplifies his best work of this period.
(fig. 1) Capitoline Venus, circa 1479, Museo Capitolino, Rome, 2nd century A.D., copy of Hellenistic original
(fig. 2) Botticelli, Nascità di Venere, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (detail)
(fig. 3) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La baigneuse au griffon, 1870
Museo de Arte, São Paulo
(fig. 4) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Etude pour "Les grandes baigneuses," 1886-1887 (detail)
Jeune femme se baignant
Oil on canvas
Signed and dated bottom right 'Renoir 88'
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Renoir, March, 1913, no. 34 (illustrated, opposite p. 32) London, Eldar Gallery, Jan.-Feb., 1920
Cleveland, Museum of Art, French Paintings of the Latter 19th Century, July-Sept., 1921
Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, Edouard Manet, Pierre Renoir, Berthe Morisot, Oct., 1924-March, 1925, no. 1. The exhibition traveled to Cleveland, Museum of Art.
Toronto, Art Gallery, Inaugural Exhibition, Jan.-Feb., 1926, no. 130
Philadelphia, Museum of Art, Manet and Renoir, Nov., 1933-Jan., 1934
Cleveland, Museum of Art, 20th Anniversary Exhibition, June-Oct., 1936, no. 306
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Renoir, A Special Exhibition of his Paintings, May-Sept., 1937, no. 47 (illustrated)
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Classics of the Nude, April, 1939, no. 29 (illustrated, pl. 29)
New York, World's Fair, Masterpieces of Art, May-Oct., 1940, no. 328
New York, Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Renoir, March-April, 1950, p. 62, no. 61 (illustrated)
New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, Pictures Collected by Yale Alumni, May-June, 1956, no. 106 (illustrated)
Cleveland, Museum of Art, The Venetian Tradition in Art, Nov., 1956-Jan., 1957, no. 34 (illustrated, pl. LX)
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, July-Aug., 1961
New York, Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Renoir, March-May, 1969, no. 67 (illustrated)
32 x 25¾ in. (81.2 x 65.4 cm.)
W. Wright, Modern Painting, New York, 1915, p. 122
W. Milliken, "French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists at the Cleveland Museum of Art," The Arts, 1921 (no. 2), p. 68 (illustrated, p. 71)
G. Rivière, Renoir et ses amis, Paris, 1921, p. 79 (illustrated) "French Paintings of the Latter 19th Century," Cleveland Museum Bulletin, June-July, 1921, p. 105 H. de Regnier, Renoir, peintre du nu, Paris, 1923, pl. 19 (illustrated)
T. Duret, "Renoir," Bulletin de la Vie Artistique, Feb., 1925, p. 89 (illustrated)
J. Meier-Graefe, Renoir, Leipzig, 1929, p. 208, no. 196 (illustrated)
J. Meier-Graefe, "French 19th Century Painting in London," The Fine Arts, May, 1932, p. 15 (illustrated)
"Manet and Renoir," Pennsylvania Museum Bulletin, Dec., 1933, p. 19
T. Duret, Renoir, New York, 1937, pl. 42 (illustrated)
J.L. Allen, "Paintings by Renoir," Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, May, 1937, p. 114
A. Frankfurter, "The Classic Nude: 1860-1905," Art News, April 15, 1939, p. 11 (illustrated)
R.H. Wilenski, Modern French Painters, London, 1940, p. 341 (illustrated) M. Drucker, Renoir, Paris, 1944, pp. 81, 181 and 203 (illustrated, pl. 90)
D. Rouart, Renoir, Lausanne, 1954, pl. 72 (illustrated)
R. Cogniat, Renoir:Nus, Paris, 1959, pl. 8 (illustrated)
G. Savage, International Art Sales, London, 1961, vol. I, p. 47 (illustrated in color, p. 90)
A.M. Fern, "Kreeger Collection," Connoisseur Yearbook, 1966, p. 28
H. Dorra, The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. David Lloyd Kreeger, Washington, D.C., 1970, pp. 11 and 48 (illustrated, p. 49)
F. Daulte, Auguste Renoir, Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, Lausanne, 1971, vol. I (Figures, 1860-1890), no. 554 (illustrated)
Grand Collection of World Art, Tokyo, 1974, vol. 20, p. 137 (illustrated in color, pl. XXV)
Dr. Georges de Bellio, Paris
E. Donop de Monchy, Paris
M. Hirsch, Paris; sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, Dec. 7, 1912, lot 40
Gaston Dreyfus, Paris (acquired at the above sale)
Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris (1913)
Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris (Jan. 28, 1914)
Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris (Feb. 9, 1918)
Eldar Gallery, London (1920)
Ralph M. Coe, Cleveland; sale, Sotheby & Co., London, Nov. 23, 1960, lot 38
Mr. and Mrs. David Lloyd Kreeger, Washington, D.C. (acquired at the above sale)