Click Image to Enlarge
Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
|A Woman Seated by a Lake, ca. 1885
Graphite with blue, green, yellow, and red watercolor, heightened with white bodycolor (oxidized), on white wove paper
14.1 x 18.9 cm
Bequeathed by Montague Shearman, through the Contemporary Art Society, 1940
Of famously nervous temperament, Renoir had lifelong anxiety about the technical challenges of painting. These concerns climaxed around 1883, when, as he would later tell the dealer Ambroise Vollard, “a sort of break occurred in my work. I had got to the end of Impressionism and had reached the conclusion that I could neither paint nor draw. In a word, I was in a blind alley.”[i] Over the coming decade, Renoir deliberately undertook the task of re-learning how to draw and paint, setting aside his previous interest in fleeting atmospheric effects and seeking instead to achieve solidity and permanency of form. For inspiration he looked to the classically-informed oil painting of Ingres, whose linear style he began studying in the late 1870s, and to antique and Renaissance frescoes, which the artist sought out on his first trip to Italy in 1881.[ii] The monumental Large Bathers (1884-87) in the Philadelphia Museum of Artwith its carefully defined figures; placid, opaque paint surface; and crisp, all-over illuminationhighlights the artist’s efforts to capture “the grandeur and simplicity” of the art of the past.[iii] But an equally telling artifact of this period of experimentation is the Ashmolean’s delicate watercolor drawing, Woman Seated by a Lake. This small work eloquently expresses Renoir’s desire to reconcile the rival claims of color and line; to synthesize his bold, fluid Impressionist style with a more considered and controlled ‘Ingresque’ approach.
A Woman Seated by a Lake is like two drawings in one, neat and precise in some areas, very free in others. Other watercolors from the same period with similar subject matter are much more strongly linear. Two drawings in a private collection in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, consist almost entirely of outlines made with the tip of a very small brush.[iv] In both works, Renoir seems particularly concerned with defining the shape of individual leaves; the effect is that of a Chinese landscape painting, wherein each pine needle or cherry blossom is perfectly legible, even at a great distance. It seems significant that this drawing method emerged in Renoir’s practice at the same time that he began making meticulous underdrawings for some of his paintings.[v] Occasionally, the precise outlining is even reiterated on the final surface of an oil painting, as around the baby’s penis and some of his fingers and toes in Maternity (1886).[vi] Renoir’s preoccupation with crisp, linear definition is apparent in the Ashmolean drawing as well, although only in the upper-left section of the sheet. There, Renoir has rendered a carefully outlined cascade of leaves in the unnaturalistic colors of red (in the area above the woman’s auburn hair) and blue (for the spray of leaves extending over the surface of the lake). Chartreuse has been used to define the interior of the leaves, though this color continues, free-floating, beyond their borders. This strikingly free use of color alerts us that Renoir has not given up on the more spontaneous and sketch-like approach of his earlier years. Indeed, the artist seems to relax his demand for precise delineation as he moves rightwards, opting for a more pliant and spontaneous technique. Here, Renoir works with a larger, less pointed brush to describe, in his signature broken stroke, the reflective surface of the lake and the colorful foliage of the far shore. Applied in light, liquid touches, patches of blue, yellow, pink, and green dissolve into a luminous, kaleidoscopic array, making no pretense of depicting a legible spatial structure. (It should be noted that the areas that appear black were intended by Renoir to be white. The lead-white gouache he used, however, has oxidized and turned dark.)
The lack of convincing spatial recession in the composition is matched by the unassertiveness and softness of its forms. Volumes seem to levitate and blend into each other, an effect of the wet-into-wet treatment of the watercolor, as well as of the passages of blue that run throughout the scene, linking figure to ground and near to far. The woman’s auburn hair, for example, has been highlighted with a fat swipe of blue (as well as small patches of yellow and teal) that connects her visually to the surface of the water, which seems to rise up and surround her. With her wide-set eyes and round face, the woman is perhaps recognizable as Renoir’s wife, Aline, but in every other sense she is indistinct. Her barely indicated body fades into the nothingness of the blank paper, and there is no ground, literally, for her to stand on. From related drawings, we guess that she is seated in a boat, which explains, in part, the sensation of floating that the figure conveys.[vii] Aline’s eyes are wet pools of pale blue and her expression distant and inscrutable. For a Renoir woman, she is surprisingly uningratiating, not to mention corporeally deficient. It seems that it was in the description of the body that Renoir felt most unsure whether to employ sharp linearism or blurry, emotive color. The result is a figure that is hardly there, and whose tentative treatment speaks to Renoir’s restlessness and uncertainty at this moment in his career.
[i] Renoir quoted in Denis Rouart, Renoir (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), 117.
[ii] John House in Renoir, exh. cat. (London: Hayward Gallery, 1985), 220.
[iv] See Studies of Trees and Two Women with a Child in a Boat, from the collection of Philip Hofer, in John Rewald, ed. Renoir Drawings (New York: H. Bittner and Company, 1946), figs. 50 and 51.
[v] House, 249.
[vii] See Two Women with a Child in a Boat, from the collection of Philip Hofer, in Rewald, ed.,
fig 51, and In the Boat, from the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, in Horst Keller, Watercolors and Drawings of the French Impressionists (New York: Abrams, 1982), 133.