In Focus

Pierre-Auguste Renoir's The Bather

The Bather is among the most important surviving drawings by Renoir. It relates, without question, to the famous painting Blond Bather, 1881, in the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown. 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. He 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—Susanna at the bath, Diana, or Venus—that populate Renaissance and baroque painting, drawing, and printmaking. 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. 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. He created a thoroughly modern "goddess" who carries allusions to both the Bible and classical mythology.

A second fascinatingly traditional aspect of the drawing is its medium-red chalk, or sanguine, which Renoir began using only in the late 1870s and early 1880s. 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 Franҫois Boucher, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and Hubert Robert.

It is likely that this sheet was drawn from the model in Naples in preparation for the 1881 painting, which Renoir apparently began there and gave to his friend Henri Vever on returning to France. The figures in the drawing and the painting are of identical dimension, guaranteeing their one-to-one relationship. Although it would be tempting to conclude that Renoir made the drawing first and transferred it to the primed canvas, there is unfortunately no positive evidence for this. He used heavy weave paper rather than tracing paper and did not square the drawing to ease the transfer. it is more likely that he 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 and then softened and expanded them 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 agin on making a second painting, in 1882, of the same figure, a version larger than either the drawaing or the first painitng. This superb painting (Agnelli Collection, Turin) was in the collection of Sir Kenneth Clark, whose 1956 book The Nude redefined the way 20th-century viewers think about the unclothed human form.

Excerpt from

Richard Brettell, in Mind's Eye: Masterworks on Paper from David to Cézanne, eds. Olivier Meslay and William B. Jordan (Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press, 2014), 142-143.

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