Renoir is reknowned as a superb figure painter, and the present work was completed just as he was forging a reputation as an outstanding portraitist during the late 1870s. Many of the subjects of these pictures were friends and acquaintances who visited his studio on the rue Cortot, where he completed Liseuse in 1877. John Rewald has speculated that the model for this composition was a close acquaintance of Renoir's named Marguerite Legrand, called Margot, who also appears as a dancing figure in the Bal au Moulin de la Galette, a version of which was also in the Whitney collection (see fig. 1). Discussing the figure in this picture, Rewald writes, "Whether [the present work] represents Margot or not, this small canvas vibrates with the remembrance of a still moment, of a reflective mood, of a warm feeling, and of a delicate impression" (John Reward, The John Hay Whitney Collection, 1960-61, The Tate Gallery, London, 1960-61).
For this composition, Renoir depicts the young woman, her chin resting against her hand , reading in an upholstered armchair. Rewald has noted that the sitter looked "pensive rather than reading," as her lackadaisical posture suggests that she is not concentrating on the book in her lap. In another composition, La Pensée (see fig. 2), completed around the same time, Renoir depicts a woman in the same armchair and with the same gesture but directly engaging with the viewer. In the picture from the Greentree Foundation, however, she is deep in thought and engulfed by her surroundings. Renoir had painted his friend Edmond Maître (see fig. 3) in this pose a few years earlier, but in the present work, he is much more an Impressionist in his approach. This is particularly notable in his treatment of the sitter's features, which appear as soft patches of color rather than clearly articulated forms. The strong contrasts of light and dark and the dabs of paint that he applies to the surface of the canvas create the hazy, atmospheric appearance that was characteristic of classic Impressionist painting.
Colin B. Bailey has written extensively on the portraiture of Renoir, and notes that those of the 1870s were exceptionally well-received by the Parisian avant-garde, including the critic Georges Rivière: "Although Georges Rivière would later claim that Renoir disliked painting potraits, even of pretty women, in April of 1877, at the time of his closest involvement with the artist, he is found advertising the painter's talents to female readers of the newly launched journal, L'Impressionniste, urging the wives of good Republicans to overcome their husbands' resistance and commission Renoir to paint "a ravishing potrait that will capture every ounce of your charm' "(Colin B. Bailey, "Portrait of the Artist as a Portrait Painter," Renoir's Portraits, Impressions of an Age (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; The Art Instute of Chicago; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 1997-98, p. 4).
Liseuse was once in the eminent collection of Baron Ferenc Hatvany of Hungary. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Hatvany collection was the among the most prestigious in all of Budapest, and this picture hung in the Baron's salon, along with works by Manet and Delacroix (see fig. 4). According to Hatvany's daugher, the Baron sent this picture to America around 1947-48, at which point it was sold to the Whitneys. Before Hatvany had it, the painting belonged to another famous Hungarian collector, Baron Herzog, who had purchased it from Renoir's dealer, Durand-Ruel.
Fig. 1, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le bal du Moulin de la Galette, 1876, oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Fig. 2, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Pensée, 1876-77, oil on canvas, Accepted by H.M. Government in lieu of tax
Fig. 3, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Portrait d'Edmond Maître (Le Liseur), oil on canvas, 1872, Private Collection
Fig. 4, Photograph of the home of Baron Ferenc Hatvany, circa 1930, featuring the present work on the wall.
Oil on canvas
London, The Tate Gallery, The John Hay Whitney Collection, 1960-61, no. 48
16 1/4 by 12 7/8 in. 41.3 by 32.5 cm
François Daulte, Auguste Renoir, Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, Figures: 1860-1890, vol. I, Lausanne, 1971, no. 257, illustrated
Elda Fezzi and Jacqueline Henry, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Renoir, périod impressionniste 1869-1883, Paris, 1985, no. 295, illustrated p. 101
László Mravik, The ‘Sacco de Budapest’ and Depredation of Hungary, 1938-1949, Budapest, 1998, no. 16857, catalogued p. 245 (Sotheby’s has been informed by the Hungarian government that it has no objection to the sale of this painting)
Durand-Ruel, Paris (acquired from the artist on July 19, 1888)
Baron Herzog, Budapest (acquired from the above on October 17, 1911)
Baron Ferenc Hatvany, Budapest (until circa 1947-48, according to his daughter)
Carroll Carstairs Gallery, New York
Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney (acquired from the above on January 6, 1948)