Painted in 1902, La source (Nu allongé) is a dreamlike vision of feminine beauty and grace. This grand, slumbering nude is draped beside a gushing spring within an idyllic pastoral landscape. She is Pierre-Auguste Renoir's rendition of a nymph or naiad, a water dwelling spirit that personifies the creative aspects of nature -- for both women and water are the source from which all life originates. The model depicted has no symbolic referents to indicate her status as a goddess but the mythic image of woman remains intact. The wavelike configuration of her supple curves imitates the allegory of the flowing spring. Her body is a lyrical invention, where limbs undulate in a beautiful rhythm at the expense of accurate anatomical detail. The contours of the hills and foliage echo her form, while the hazy distinction between figure and background fuses her with the Arcadian surroundings. In this way, Renoir has associated the female nude with the forces of nature itself. With her soft, welcoming figure and coquettish downcast gaze, this idealized image of femininity is a passive embodiment of lushness and fertility, earthiness and love.
This theme reflects Renoir's growing interest in classical subjects in the later years of his career. As an acclaimed pioneer of Impressionism, he had earlier sought to challenge the curriculum of French academic painting and its focus on the Old Masters. But his tour of Italy in 1881 to see the great works of Raphael, Titian and other Renaissance artists saw him return to France in a state approaching shock. The Impressionist doctrine to capture the ever-changing atmosphere of outdoor scenes now felt restrictive and Renoir yearned to create a greater sense of harmony and timelessness in his art. He reached a crisis point in the 1880s but kept painting, figuring out a way to forge a link between modern art and the classical tradition of French painting, represented for him by such artists as Nicolas Poussin, Antoine Watteau and François Boucher. Renoir began to work more in the studio than in the open air, less attracted to the play of light than to such enduring subjects as mythology and the female form. 'With all modesty,' he declared, 'I consider not only that my art descends from a Watteau, a Fragonard, a Hubert Robert, but also that I am one with them' (quoted in J. Renoir, Renoir on Renoir: Interviews, Essays and Remarks, New York, 1989, p. 66).
The painter had occasionally depicted the female nude during the early years of his output, but it was not until he returned from Italy that he made it the principal theme of his art. In doing so, he took a distinguished place within the continuity between the previous century and the new one just underway. La source (Nu allongé) finds countless art historical precedents and interpretations, both in the motif of the reclining nude and in the subject of the water nymph. Ingres, Courbet and Corot had all turned their hand at signifying renewal, rebirth and hope via the symbiosis of nubile maidens and flowing water. In Renoir's version we see a projection of pleasure, a reassuring reminder of the eternal balance of nature, painted at a time when he was not only enjoying the loving embrace of family life, but also experiencing the painful onset of the rheumatoid arthritis that would eventually cripple him. As Renoir entered his old age, youthful, fleshy nudes such as La source (Nu allongé) increasingly served as a balm for the artist's failing health.
Renoir had explored the theme of the reclining nude as water nymph as early as 1869-70 with La nymphe, la source (National Gallery, London). However, the present painting is a development upon a much later composition, La source circa 1895 (Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA) that Renoir completed for his friend, Paul Gaillmard, director of the Théâtre des Variétés. This variation took inspiration from the 16th century bas-reliefs carved by Jean Goujon for the Fontaine des Innocents. Renoir had been familiar with Goujon's sculpture since his youth and had sketched scenes from the fountain during his apprenticeship as a porcelain painter. He later reminisced to his son Jean, 'Those women Jean Goujon carved have something of the cat about them. Cats are the only women who count, the most amusing to paint' (Renoir, quoted in J. Renoir, Renoir, My Father, London, 1962, p. 62). The elongated, carefree posture of the model in the present painting certainly displays something of a languid feline attitude. Like the 1895 version of this subject, the model has been made to conform to Renoir's idealized vision of beauty, with her broad hips, long torso and high, round breasts. But here she appears to be more woman than girl. This same model and pose appears again in La source of 1910 (Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA), which places her in a self-contained bower, rather than hinting at the distant landscape and skyline seen here.
Renoir's vigorous painterly technique and the model's cascade of auburn hair give this composition a greater sense of energy and freedom than its predecessor, which tips its hat firmly to Goujon's sculptural influence in the form of an illusionistic stone frame. The Neo-Classical overtones have been softened here, as have the boundaries of the composition's motifs. Turning away from the cool colours, firm contours, and clear distinction between figure and background that characterize his nudes from the mid-1880s, Renoir has woven his composition together with a palette of warm related colours to achieve formal unity. Fine detail is subjugated for a cohesive picture surface in which the scene is rendered in a smoothly flowing style. The feathered application of the oils has an expressionistic quality and a sense of luminosity that recalls Jean Renoir's description of his father's painting process, whereby he would cover the canvas in colour and, from the haze, the image would slowly appear: 'the motif gradually emerged from the seeming confusion, with each brushstroke, as though on a photographic plate' (J. Renoir, ibid., p. 343).
The first owner of La source (Nu allongé) was the prominent French art dealer and collector, Paul Rosenberg. During the inter-war years, his galleries in Paris and London were acknowledged to be the world's most active and influential showcase of 19th and 20th century French painting, specializing in Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Cubist schools and their contemporary developments. He eventually enjoyed an exclusive contract with Pablo Picasso, for whom he tried to arrange a meeting with Renoir, failing only because the elder master passed away before the date could be set. Rosenberg was compelled to establish himself in New York with the onset of the Second World War and the move helped facilitate the migration of French pictures to the United States. In 1956, he donated La source (Nu allongé) to the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Rosenberg was an advisor and close friend to the Museum's first Director, Alfred Barr, and he frequently loaned or donated great works of early modern French art for MoMA's exhibitions. The acquisition of La source (Nu allongé) was celebrated in the Museum's bulletin, where it was said to lead '...the list of painting and sculpture added to the Museum Collections during the year and a half between mid-1955 and the end of 1956. Painted in 1902, its grandeur of line and tender colour mark a moment of classic serenity before the magnificent excess of the master's last period. This most welcome gift of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Rosenberg is the first Renoir figure painting to enter the Collection and immediately takes its place as one of the Museum's most important pictures by a master of the Impressionist generation' (A. H. Barr, 'Painting and Sculpture Collections, July 1, 1955 to December 31, 1956', in The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art, vol. 24, no. 4, New York, 1957, p. 3). In 1973, it was loaned for an exhibition of Renoir's paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago. The accompanying catalogue traced the subject's lineage to the tradition of Boucher and Titian while reminding viewers that '...she is Renoir's special creation. He set out to do a monumental nude, and he has achieved one of power and full authority' (J. Maxon, ed., Paintings by Renoir, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 1973, pp. 72-73).
La source (Nu allongé) was de-accessioned and sold by MoMA in 1989 in order to raise funds for further collection acquisitions. It has since been exhibited widely and internationally, including the recent groundbreaking show of Renoir's late paintings which connected the work of his final three decades to artists that followed, most importantly Picasso, Matisse and Bonnard, among others. The show underlined how Renoir's last decades were among the most innovative years of his life and how his classicising tendencies and still-evolving style provided a treasury of ideas to this younger generation. This influence can be traced in the simplified, monumental forms of Picasso's neoclassical period, and the joy-filled freedom of Matisse's odalisques, where the abundant sensuality of Renoir's nudes and his self-conscious glance to the past have clearly left their mark.
La source (Nu allongé)
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY FROM THE ESTATE OF ERNST BEYELER
Signed 'Renoir.' (lower right)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir , 1900s, Paintings, oil, France, Impressionist, nude
New York, Galerie Paul Rosenberg, The Last Twenty Years of Renoir's Life, March - April 1954, no. 2 (illustrated).
Chicago, The Art Institute, Paintings by Renoir, February - April 1973, no. 72 (illustrated).
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, L'éternel féminin, November 1989 - February 1990, no. 61 (illustrated).
Tokyo, Sezon Museum of Art, From Manet to Gauguin, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from Swiss Private Collections, October 1995 - January 1996, no. 55, pp. 146-147 (illustrated).
Tübingen, Kunsthalle, Renoir, January - May 1996, no. 88 (illustrated).
Sapporo, Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art, Exhibition from Swiss Private Collections, Coordinated by Ernst Beyeler, May - June 1996, no. 2, p. 20 (illustrated p. 31); this exhibition later travelled to Nagasaki, Huis ten Bosch Museum of Art, June - August 1996; Kyoto, Municipal Museum of Art, August - September 1996; and Tokyo, Mitsukoshi Museum of Art, October - November 1996.
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Joie de vivre, June - September 1997, no. 59, pp. 14-15 (illustrated).
Sakura, Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art, Renoir: Modern Eyes, April - May 1999, no. 36, p. 96 (illustrated p. 97); this exhibition later travelled to Sendai, The Miyagi Museum of Art, May - July 1999; and Sapporo, Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art, July - August 1999.
London, Royal Academy of Arts, 1900: Art at the Crossroads, January - April 2000, no. 39, p. 111 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, May - September 2000.
Bologna, Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Il nudo fra ideale e realtà; dal Neoclassicismo ad oggi, January - May 2004, no. 42, pp. 62-63 (illustrated).
Krems, Kunsthalle, Renoir und das Frauenbild des Impressionismus, April - July 2005, p. 90 (illustrated pp. 90 & 32-33).
Riehen, Fondation Beyeler, EROS in der Kunst der Moderne, October 2006 - February 2007, p. 32 (illustrated).
Barletta, Palazzo della Marra, Zandomeneghi e Renoir, March - June 2007.
Wuppertal, Von der Heydt-Museum, Auguste Renoir und die Landschaft des Impressionismus, October 2007 - January 2008, p. 156 (illustrated).
Paris, Grand Palais, Renoir au XXe siècle, September 2009 - January 2010, no. 28, p. 229 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to Los Angeles, County Museum of Art, February - May 2010; and Philadelphia, Museum of Art, June - September 2010.
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
26½ x 60 3/8 in. (67.3 x 153.3 cm.)
A. Vollard, Tableaux, pastels et dessins de Pierre-Auguste Renoir, vol. I, Paris, 1918, no. 183, p. 46 (illustrated).
J. Meier-Graefe, Renoir, Leipzig, 1929, no. 244, p. 259 (illustrated).
W. Pach, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, New York, 1951, p. 96.
The Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, vol. 24, 1957, no. 4, p. 3 (illustrated).
W. Pach, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Cologne, 1958, p. 134 (illustrated).
W. Pach, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, New York, 1960, p. 107 (illustrated).
W. Pach, Renoir, Japan, 1964, p. 100 (illustrated).
A.H. Barr, Painting and Sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1967, p. 16 (illustrated).
G.P. & M. Dauberville, Renoir, Catalogue raisonné des tableaux, pastels, dessins et aquarelles, vol. III, 1895-1902, Paris, 2010, no. 2447, p. 434 (illustrated).
Mr & Mrs Paul Rosenberg, Paris & New York.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York (no. 23.56), a gift from the above in 1956, until de-accessioned in 1989.
Acquired from the above by the late Ernst Beyeler, Basel.
VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 20% on the buyer's premium.