The pure Impressionist style first appeared in 1869 in a series of landscapes painted by Claude Monet and Renoir, La Grenouillère. Renoir's unique gifts as a colourist and his light and loose brushwork were his most important contributions to the movement. Le Premier Pas is a fine example of Renoir at his best in the 1880s: here he paints with delicacy, extraordinary touch and masterful control. A measure of his prowess is the way in which he carries the complexity of both his execution and composition on a very grand scale. Between 1875 and 1888 Renoir painted many of his greatest works.
In building up the composition, Renoir changed the colour from stroke to stroke. Using soft paintbrushes, Renoir's strokes are light and feathery, creating a soft effect of diffused light illuminating the composition. Although at first glance the colours appear to be limited to blue, white and flesh tones, a closer look reveals a wide range of purple, yellow and green tones. It is this complexity of colour and touch which gives the painting its extraordinary luminosity and great beauty.
The support Renoir had gained from the patronage of the Charpentier family (fig. 5) and others in their social circle required Renoir to paint several figurative paintings on the grand scale. However, in the 1870s, instead of basing his compositions on fashionable portraiture, he constructed his art on a new and much more demanding basis. Nini Lopez, one of Renoir's favourite models, posed for Le premier pas, as she did for many other sumptuous figurative paintings of the period (fig. 3). As Barbara E. White has noted:
"...[they are] intimate studies in which the visible strokes create a lively, snapshot effect. Renoir treated his figures as models in active scenes; these are not meant to be revealing character studies. Consequently, he blurred the distinction between making a portrait of someone and using that person as a model". (B.E. White, Impressionists Side by Side, New York, 1966, p. 91)
Her head of shining, golden blond hair, long eyelashes and well-arched brows defined her as a model of classical purity. It can be said that the bond between a mother and her first born child is the singlemost powerful bond in humankind. Renoir's Le premier pas can be read as a powerful affirmation of such an assertion. As Lawrence Gowing has noted:
"These paintings steadily embody a relationship. They are images of what is mutual, tender and ardent, which returned to the stillness of painting that the painter had gaily plundered and would again. They show the painting of love and the love of painting to be intimately linked and treasured resources and lastingly add them to the richness of art. We find ourselves treating this, which we had taken for makeshift picture making, as great painting and notice that in this special dimension, which is Renoir's own and no one else's, there is no contradiction". (L. Gowing, Renoir, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1985, p. 33)
Painted in the same year as his seminal Bal au Moulin de la Galette (Musè d'Orsay, Paris), Le premier pas reveals Renoir's receptivity to the influence of the old masters. Elements of Le premier pas seem to refer back to imagery found in many Renaissance Madonnas. Such a resemblance is of a generic rather than a specific nature, though. While the theme is Impressionist, the structure of Le premier pas maintians a classical arrangement of form--figures set into a triangular formation with strong vertical and diagonal lines. Renoir manages to convey at the same time a sense of closure--two figures perfectly positioned in a shallow space--and a sense of distance--the receding room and open door to the right of the composition. Renoir achieves perfect coherence and legibility despite these conflicting viewpoints (the child seen from above, Nini directly facing the viewer) and through technique as energized and as various as at any point earlier in the decade. From the dabs of violet and yellow pigment in Nini's hair to the soft blue tones creating the effect of folds in the child's dress, Renoir's virtuousity is highly disciplined: each element is configured wihtin a rigorous compositional unity.
One of the first owners of Le Premier Pas was August Pellerin, the celebrated Parisian collector whose taste ranged from classical Barbizon pictures to the greatest Impressionists. The list of masterpieces once in his collection is breathtaking: aside from owning the largest collection of Cézanne paintings in private hands at the beginning of the century he also owned Renoir's La baigneuse au griffon, (Museo de Arte, Sao Paolo); Monet's Gare St. Lazare (National Gallery, London); and over fifty works by Manet, Le bar aux Folies-Berère (The Courtauld Institute of Art, London) among them. Le premier pas has not been exhibited since 1914, shortly after it was acquired by Pellerin. For many years, because it had not been shown, a misconception developed that the work was signed and dated 1880. As Wildenstein and Vollard were aware the piece was executed and is dated 1876, perhaps the most celebrated year of Renoir's grand scale figurative paintings from his purist impressionist period.
Le premier pas
Oi on canvas
PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE COLLECTION
Signed and dated 'Renoir 76' (lower left)
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Renoir, January-February 1900, no. 33.
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Renoir, March 1913, no. 13.
London, Grovesnor House, French Art, 1914, no. 63.
43¾ x 31 3/8 in. (111 x 80.5 cm.)
J. Meier-Graefe, Auguste Renoir, Paris, 1912 (illustrated p. 91).
A. Mirbeau, Renoir, Paris, 1913 (illustrated p. 12).
A. Vollard, Renoir, vol. I, Paris, 1919, p. 85, no. 337.
J. Meier-Graefe, Auguste Renoir, Munich, 1920 (illustrated p. 83). G. Lecomte, "L'Oeuvre de Renoir", L'Art et les Artiste, Paris, 1920, no. 4 (illustrated p. 145).
G. Coquiot, Renoir, Paris, 1925, p. 225.
J. Meier-Graefe, Renoir, Leipzig, 1929, no. 100 (illustrated p.
M. Drucker, Renoir, Paris, 1944, pl. 63.
A. Chamson, Renoir, Lausanne, 1949, p. 23 (illustrated).
M. Berr de Turquie, Renoir, Paris, n.d., pl. 38.
W. Gaunt, Renoir, London, 1952 (illustrated pl. 38).
V. Pica, Gl'Impressionisti Francesi, Bergamo, 1968 (illustrated p. 89).
F. Daulte, Auguste Renoir, vol. I., Lausanne, 1971, no. 347 (illustrated).
E. Fezzi, L'Opera completa di Renoir, Milan, 1972, no. 414, p. 107. D. Wildenstein, Renoir, Paris, 1980, p. 50 (illustrated p. 25).
A. Vollard, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, paintings, pastels and drawings, San Francisco, 1989, no. 337, p. 85.
Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris, by whom acquired directly from the artist on 25 July 1891 for Ff.2000.
Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, paris, by whom acquired from the above on 19 March 1897.
Auguste Pellerin, Paris, by 1912.
Jean-Victor Pellerin, Paris, by descent from the above, until 1970.
Wildenstein & Co., Paris and New York (1980).
Purchased by the present owner in 1988.