The Bather

MAKER:
Artist

Pierre-Auguste Renoir ( French, 1841 - 1919 )

DATE:
1880–1881
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General Description

This is among the most important surviving drawings by Renoir. It relates, without question, to the famous painting "Blonde Bather" (The Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts) of 1881. Renoir is said to have painted this work in Naples while on his first trip to Italy, where he studied the art of the ancient world and the Renaissance, as his fellow Frenchmen had done since the late 16th century. Renoir's trip fostered direct connections between his art and the classical tradition. While in Italy, Renoir studied Raphael, whom he admired but, as a true Frenchman, considered inferior to Ingres. Renoir had moved beyond Impressionism by 1880 and sought in Italy inspiration from great past art. In this way, his motivations were exactly the opposite of those of the founders of Impressionism, who stressed an art rooted in daily life and the varied appearances of the modern world. "The Bather" has many layers of tradition. First, its subject of a female bather alludes to a long tradition of similar images - Suzannah at the bath, Diana, Venus - that populate Renaissance and Baroque painting, drawing, and print-making. Within this tradition, the nude more often reclines than sits; in creating a seated nude, Renoir allowed the nude an identity as a person, free to move as she wishes. Hence, she is at once mythological and modern. And by giving her a prominent wedding ring, as can be seen in "Blonde Bather," Renoir made her not only contemporary but also above reproach in her nudity. Thus, Renoir created a thoroughly modern "goddess" who carries within her allusions to both the Bible and classical mythology. A second fascinatingly traditional aspect of the drawing is its medium - red chalk, or "sanguine" in French. Renoir began using this medium only in the late 1870s and early 1880s; thus, this sheet can be considered his first masterpiece in the medium. The technique has a powerful history in French art, with its most important roots in the drawings of 18th-century masters such as Boucher, Pierre, Fragonard, and Robert. Hence, Renoir courted a specifically "French" tradition of drawing while working in Italy. It is likely that this sheet was drawn from the model in Naples in preparation for the 1881 painting. Renoir apparently began that painting in Naples and, on returning to France, gave it to his friend Henri Vever. When comparing the drawing to the painting, we observe that both figures are of identical dimension, guaranteeing their one-to-one relationship. Although it would be tempting to conclude that Renoir first made the drawing and then transferred it to the primed canvas, there is unfortunately no positive evidence for this. He used heavy wove tissue paper rather than tracing paper and did not "square" the drawing to ease transfer. It is more likely that Renoir made the drawing from the model to secure his knowledge of the figure. He drew initially in pencil, using thin but firm lines to outline all major forms. These he softened and expanded with the red chalk. The drawing was probably finished along with or after the painting. Its two signatures suggest that when he sold it to his dealer, Ambroise Vollard, he signed it more prominently to add to its salability. Renoir surely consulted the drawing again on making a second painting, in 1882, of the same figure, a version larger than either the drawing or the first painting. This superb second painting (Agnelli Collection, Turin) was formerly in the collection of Sir Kenneth Clark, whose book "The Nude" redefined the way 20th century viewers think about the unclothed form (Clark 1956). "Impressionist Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture from the Wendy and Emery Reves Collection," pages 76-77