This wonderful pastel, which is related to an oil of a similar subject (see fig. 1) and a nearly identical pastel (see fig. 2), possesses all of the elegance and panache that is characteristic of Renoir’s major compositions. The work dates from 1889 and depicts two young women of the upper middle class in a moment of tender exchange. The two fair-haired models for this picture are believed to be the same women who posed for Renoir’s La Leçon de piano that same year (see fig. 3). The artist’s success with both of these works ultimately lead to his creation of the iconic image Jeunes filles au piano, versions of which hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (see fig. 4).
The opulent pastel coloring of La Lecture evokes the warmth and intimacy of the scene. The women’s hair glistens with gold and amber tones from the lamplight of the interior, and their downcast eyes are focused on the pages of the open book or musical score. The most appealing elements of the composition are the figure’s luxuriant red dresses, which Renoir blends with his pastel into a seamless swath of velvety fabric. Götz Adriani recognized Renoir’s technical feat here, and has written the following about the related oil: “The artist worked hard at individualizing the sitters. He turned this double portrait more into a genre scene. The concentrated activities of the sitters have the same effect that the bright red robes have on the harmony of the whole composition. Never before and rarely after is the triumph of and brilliance of the colour red so eminent. The colour also remarks on the social status of the musically interested sisters, sitting in an upper middle class home” (Götz Adriani, Renoir, (exhibition catalogue) Kunsthalle Tubingen, 1996, no. 79, illustrated p.255).
By the time he completed the present work, Renoir was renowned as the finest portrait painter of the Impressionist circle. His portraits of women in particular received overwhelming praise from his contemporaries and were admired for their charm and sensual, albeit innocent, allure. These flattering pictures appealed to contemporary taste at the same time as they paid homage to the genre painting of French eighteenth century artists. The critic Théodore Duret would later write, “Renoir excels at portraits. Not only does he catch the external features, but through them he pinpoints the model’s character and inner self. I doubt whether any painter has ever interpreted women in a more seductive manner. The deft and lively touches of Renoir’s brush are charming, supple and unrestrained, making flesh transparent and tinting the cheeks and lips with a perfect living hue. Renoir’s women are enchantresses…” (Théodore Duret, reprinted in Histoire des peintres impressionnistes, Paris, 1922, p. 27).
Along with being one of the most important pastels from this period of Renoir’s career, La Lecture is widely-regarded as the proto-genitor of one of the most celebrated works of Impressionist painting -- Jeunes filles au piano. About three years after Renoir completed the present pastel, the French government commissioned the artist to create a large-scale work for the collection of the Musée du Luxembourg. The museum housed a collection of paintings from the most acclaimed living artists of the day, and the invitation to include Renoir’s art was a supreme honor. For this important project, the artist returned to the theme of the two sisters. He reinterpreted the subject of La Leçon au piano and incorporated the intimate mood and modeling of La Lecture, producing several oil studies and the final Luxembourg composition which is now housed in the Musée d’Orsay. Discussing the different versions of Jeunes filles au piano, John House noted that they relate to Renoir’s earlier “pictures of the carefree recreations of pretty young bourgeois girls, presented in smooth and harmonious groupings…his chosen subjects also go beyond literal depiction; typical rather than specific, their slightly generalized forms are designed to evoke moods; it was this that enabled younger critics in symbolist circles to take up his art with such eloquent enthusiasm in the 1890s. Throughout the 1890s the innocence and prettiness of youth were the central theme of his art.” (John House, Renoir, (exhibition catalogue) The Hayward Gallery, London; Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1985, p. 262).
Fig. 1, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Les Deux soeurs, oil on canvas, circa 1889, sold: Sotheby's, London February 5, 2007
Fig. 2, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Lecture, circa 1889, former collection Thannhauser, Berlin
Fig. 3, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Leçon de piano, 1889, oil on canvas, Joslyn Art Museum, Nebraska
Fig. 4, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jeunes filles au piano, 1892, oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Pastel on paper
Montreal, Art Association of Montreal, 1933 (on loan)
31 7/8 by 25 5/8 in. 81 by 65 cm
Durand-Ruel, Paris (acquired from the artist on March 15, 1890)
Durand-Ruel, New York
Sir William Van Horne, Montreal (acquired from the above on July 7, 1892 and sold: Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., New York, January 24, 1946, lot 13)
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner