Arts Everyday Living: Inside the World of Renoir—The Mona Lisa of Children?

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, A Girl with a Watering Can, 1876, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


Title: A Girl with a Watering Can

Who: French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)


THE MONA LISA OF CHILDREN:  Is she the Mona Lisa of children, with a perpetual smile on her face? Is she perhaps hiding some secret? Or simply happy with her life?

A HOME IN THE NATION’S CAPITOL: She’s been hanging in a place of honor at the National Gallery since at least 1963, as part of the generous bequest of her last owner Chester A. Dale.  However, she has belonged to a long and varied list of owners since 1876, the year Renoir immortalized her, including a count; the artist’s most loyal patron, wealthy banker Paul Berard; and Alexander Berthier, the 4th Prince of Wagram, killed during World War I.

Generations have been captivated by A Girl with a Watering Can, no matter the age, not only at the museum itself but through reproductions via books, posters, and the internet. In my case, one of my first memories is a  framed print of her staring across at me every morning, as I lay in my bed. Probably the original inspiration for my pursuit of art history as an adult.

A LONG AGO VISITOR? Unfortunately it seems only Renoir knew the identity of his model. Or did she actually exist? Was she more a creation of the painter’s imagination?

Then again, I used to hear a story that circulated among some of my older friends and acquaintances when I first lived in Washington in the late 1970s. That decades before, an elderly French woman had shown up at the National Gallery of Art and standing before the painting, announced that she was the subject who had posed for Renoir. According to them, the D.C. newspapers had publicized her claim and she became briefly a local celebrity. Yet, apparently, she had no proof—so the mystery continues! 

THE TRULY COLORFUL: Renoir ranks among the superb colorists of art history: Titian, Rubens, Delacroix, and Matisse, among others. Enhanced by the rainbow palette and luminous light of Impressionism. For instance, the velvety, midnight blue of the dress so central to the masterpiece combined with the intricate patterns of decorative white lace. Or how about the emerald and turquoise watering can?

Or the lush green of the grass in the background? The golden tones of the girl’s hair, halo-like in effect? Topped by the vibrant red of her distinctive bow. Plus the multi-colored flowers—rose, pink, orange, purple—that grow throughout the garden.   

GOOGLING RENOIR: Renoir is famous for his portraits of children! You might try googling a few.

The Dancer, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Two Sisters on a Terrace, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

Portrait of Julie Manet or Little Girl with a Cat, Musee D’Orsay, Paris, France

Lucie Berard (Girl in White), Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

Child with Toys–Gabrielle and the Artist’s Son Jean, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

The Artist’s Son Drawing, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia 





In the public domain, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The National Gallery of Art does not endorse or approve use of the above image or any of the material on this website. Nor has the National Gallery of Art participated in any projects utilizing the said image.










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