19th Century European Art Renoir’s Washerwomen (c 1888): A Review Located between two major styles of his art, Renoir’s Washerwomen (c 1888), displays the use of bright colors and a technique un-characteristic of his previous style. Living from 1841 to 1919, Pierre-Auguste Renoir would become known as one of the most prominent members of the French Impressionist painters. His paintings celebrated the beauty that could be found both within women and nature. He dedicated about fifteen years of his life and seventeen pieces of work to the Impressionist movement by the time he decided to make a change.

Renoir is known to have experimented with “dappling light effects and broken brush strokes”[1]. Impressionism was an art form that was an attempt to record a visual reality through momentary effects of light and color. In the early 1880s, Renoir had begun to become dissatisfied with Impressionism because all of his works started to look too similar, so he decided to shift his focut for a few months and decided to visit Italy. He became fascinated by Renaissance art and became influence by works of the Old Masters, such as Raphael and Ingres.

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By the late 1880s, Renoir started to fall away from the form and distinct shape of the Old Masters and began adding lines and dabs of paint back into his work. After a few years and some successful works, he again shifted his style and maneuvered away from his classical phase and started painting less rigidly and with more dabs of paint resembling minor elements of Impressionism. Maryanne Stevens remarks that this work is Renoir’s early steps towards the softer style he would eventually master[2]. As with many artists, however, their careers deteriorate towards the end of their lives, which is true for this artist.

The Painting During Renoir’s Career Renoir become dissatisfied with the limitations Impressionism put on his style, so he traveled to Italy. He became greatly influenced by Italian art and decided to study ancient Roman and Renaissance art. He wished to learn a new “grandeur and simplicity”[3]. His style became softer and exemplified “vibrant touches contrast with a new emphasis on line and form”[4]. He entirely changed his form of painting and subject matter to a more linear style characteristic of the Old Masters in the mid 1880s. From his visit,

Renoir began to skirt away from the “fluttering and irregular edges of his figures of the 1870s”[5] and moved towards firmer and more rigid contours to his subjects. This is extensively noticeable in distinct lines and contours of the figures his work The Bathers (1887). His ‘Ingres’ period only lasted till the late 1880s. By the time he painted the Washerwomen in 1888, Renoir was “breaking away from the clearly outlined figures …because his [washerwomen] figures are thoroughly woven into their surroundings by their common streaky brush work and palette. [6] Painted earlier the same year as Washerwomen, Renoir painted Little girl carrying flowers. This was the first real painting after The Bathers which reveals the artist’s shift in style away from the unbending lines of his Ingres period. Maryanne Stevens calls these paintings, especially Washerwomen, a “chalky, dry, tautly handled picture”[7] and goes on to note that the “heavily worked surface implies considerable difficulty in coping with a very felicitous composition. ”[8] Renoir felt Parisian models to be expensive, so to change his scenery and his subject matter, he went to Champagne to paint peasant women. 9] Reoccurring Themes Renoir and his Washerwomen have been linked to many different artists and some of their work because of subject matter and elements that they share. Critics have connected Renoir with Gauguin and his Vision after the Sermon (1888). Renoir is said to have painted Washerwomen the same year at Gauguin completed his famous Post-Impressionist painting. The two works would both be labeled ‘decorative’ by critics because of their use of “hot colors and contrasts of primary hues. ”[10] Later artists, such as Matisse and the Fauves, would find both these paintings to give them inspiration.

In contrast to Gauguin’s work, Renoir had a greater illusion of depth and did not display such “flat areas”[11] as his contemporary. Herbert describes Renoirs work to be “quite shallow relative to traditional art. ”[12] This painting shows Renoir’s beginning steps away from his shark and rigid outlines of his Ingres period. His brushstrokes start to loosen up once again, visible through the woven lines in the picture flowing from the figures to the surroundings fluidly. Another observable similarity in subject matter ties Renoir to another contemporary artist: Millet.

The previous year, Millet had received “major retrospective”[13] and with that came a lot of positive recognition. Renoir’s Washerwomen shows similar attributes with the subject matter of peasants doing manual labor. Herbert mentions that the Renoir deliberately returned to “his earlier, feathery touch”[14] for his outdoor subjects. Contexts and Comprehension In 1887 Renoir had painted one of his most famous pieces: The Bathers. This piece contained the artist’s ‘Ingres style’ of work because it revealed the soft contours of the nude female physique. The soft lines and blended strokes hold to his Post-Impressionist period of his work.

The year after The Bathers was created, Renoir painted Little girl carrying flowers (1888) and then Washerwomen (c. 1888). Little girl carrying flowers was the first work after Bathers which shows Renoirs first steps towards moving away from his Renaissance and Old Masters style. The painting shows similar features to that of Washerwomen with the similar feathery brushstrokes and bits of paint. The skin of the little girl carries the soft style characteristic of Ingres’ works but then adds in elements distinguishable to that of the Impressionist period.

That same year Washerwomen was painted and hold close resemblance to the style and technique of that of Little girl. In 1912, Renoir comprised another painting containing washerwomen called Washerwomen at Cagnes (1912) which continues Renoir’s clear adoration of painting women in nature. Tamar Garb wrote that the artist created an “image of harmonious communion with nature… and construct the vision of a natural unity. ”[15] The style in which Washerwomen at Cagnes was painted has softer and smoother elements that blend the women together and into the surrounding nature.

Renoir was known to love women, but believed that women were better scrubbing floors and doing laborious chores. Visual Analysis Someone once remarked about the beauty of Renoir’s work and he responded with “Why shouldn’t art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world. ” These are some of his most famous words he made about his own work. From observing his work before his Washerwomen piece, one would probably fail to understand his style because it seemed to change every few years. This specific piece shows distinctive, feathery brushstrokes mixed ith more refined shading and blending. It appears to have been made with watercolor pencils because the strokes are very small and individual. The figures’ skin and clothing are more blended and smoother than the surrounding nature, which is less formulaic within the painting. Garb remarks that the figures in Washerwomen are depicted in a “union with nature…conjured up by the flowing rhythms of the women’s bent bodies”[16]. The child in the painting does not seem to fit proportionally to the other women and acts more as a distraction to the viewer than an addition to the piece.

The contours of the figures are very gentle in comparison to the surrounding grass, trees and bushes which are mixed together only giving a “general” idea that each object exists in the painting. The contrasts of style in this one painting may be the reason behind critics calling it “dry”. Renoir is between two major periods in his career, the classical period (or Ingres period) and his “sour” period which depicts nude figures in odd proportions as well as loosened stroke work. This painting reflects the artist’s intermediate period between both periods and the work shows elements of both.

The off-center child draws attention to the right side of the canvas. Standing with his/her back to the viewer, they would not be an attention point if it were not for his/her striking red socks which stand out against the brown grass. Those socks act as an attention point which draws the gaze of the viewer. From there, the viewers gaze extends to the standing woman adjusting the sleeves of her dress. She is standing in path which leads to a house or building in the background. The interaction between the child and women is not clear and cannot be fully analyzed.

The other two women washing clothes have their back to the child and acting as if they do not notice his/her presence. A frustrating aspect of the painting is the position in which the two washerwomen are kneeling by the river or lake. The water appears shallow and on the same elevation as the women, yet the women are not getting wet. They should be on a higher elevation than the water as to look more realistic. Also the bushes and trees are done in messy globs of paint greatly contrasting to the smooth, soft and organized look of the figures.

He may have wanted to have his women figures stand out from the background. From viewing this painting and many others throughout his career, one can realize that Renoir altered his style and technique very often to try to redefine himself and how people perceive his work. Washerwomen was painted a year after his Ingres period ends, so parts of that technique is still visible and apparent to those who know what to look for. This work sits in between two large periods of Renoir’s life so it cannot be classified into any certain period because many styles have been incorporated into this work. ---------------------- [1] Langdon, Helen. Grove Art Online: Renoir [2] Stevens, Maryanne. JSTOR Renoir at the Hayward. London. p 317 [3] Langdon [4] Landgon [5] Herbert, Robert. Renoir’s Writings on the Decorative Arts. p 65 [6] Herbert, p 73 [7] Stevens, p 317 [8] Stevens, p 317 [9] Renoir, Pierre-Auguste. Renoir, A Retrospective. Letters to Berthe Morisot and Eugene Manet. p 170 [10] Herbert, p 73 [11] Herbert, p 73 [12] Herbert, p 73 [13] Herbert, p 73 [14] Herbert, p 74 [15] Garb, Tamar. JSTOR Renoir and the Natural Woman. p 8 [16] Garb, Tamar. JSTOR Renoir and the Natural Woman. p 8