Artists may sometimes surprise us with the diversity of their style and technique as well as their approach to depicting subjects. Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) is usually considered the consummate Impressionist, yet during the early part of his artistic career his works were essentially realistic. So let’s compare and contrast two interpretations of his favorite inspiration–women.
Title: Mademoiselle Sicot
Artist: Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
RENOIR THE REALIST: Can you guess the background or occupation of Mademoiselle Sicot whose portrait currently hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C? Looking away from the viewer, she appears young, yet projects a sense of poise and maturity. Confident in her own beauty–the fresh, unblemished skin, the gracefully formed hands, and the attractively full figure.
Attired in the current fashion, her waist is accentuated by a solid gold buckle that gleams in the light. The dress itself is a masterpiece of color and texture, evident in the satiny purple material, mixed with pink, its surface smooth to the touch. Offset by highlights of black including the velvety bow beneath her neck, the delicate fabric of the shawl draped over her lap, even the row of three dimensional buttons. The artist also employs a variety of green shades in the chair, curtain, and wall in the background.
AN IMPORTANT COMMISSION: Renoir was careful to to depict details of Mademoiselle Sicot’s jewelry such as her precious ring as well as the elegant, dangling earrings framing her features. Symbols of her affluence and standing as an actress at the prestigious Comedie-Francaise. For according to the provenance or ownership records, Mademoiselle Sicot commissioned the portrait herself.
In his mid-twenties and struggling financially, Renoir probably was only too happy to accommodate his client. In 1865, the date of its painting, realism was still dominant, requiring accuracy and clarity. However, in just a few years, Renoir and his fellow artists Monet, Degas, Sisley, and Pissarro, would be introducing the revolutionary style of what we now know as Impressionism.
Title: Madame Henriot
Artist: Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
THE JOY OF IMPRESSIONSIM: Unlike Mademoiselle Sicot, Madame Henriot engages us directly, unafraid to tantalize posterity. How many suitors did she seduce with those deep brown eyes, set in a lovely face subtly enhanced by make-up? Her gaze even more pronounced because of the sketchy, impressionistic nature of the rest of the work of art.
As if Renoir has left her body mainly to the imagination in spite of her revealing bodice? Reenforced by the feathery brushstrokes that outline rather than clearly define. Her hands, in particular, are vague and abruptly cut off at the edge of the canvas. The pastel colors ultimately creating a romantic, dream-like effect?
By the time Renoir painted Madame Henriot, the Impressionists had held at least two of their eight exhibitions in Paris, and he was recognized as a leading artist of this still controversial style. Madame Henriot, too, was associated with the Impressionists, appearing in at least a dozen of Renoir’s works, especially in the middle 1870s. when this portrait was completed.
AN UNEXPECTED TRAGEDY: Born Marie Henriette Alphonsine Grossin (1857-1944), she studied as an actress in Paris, then performing in a number of the city’s theaters. Because initially her roles were minor, she had to supplement her income with modeling for Renoir. She eventually used Madame Henriot as a stage name.
Her daughter, Jeanne Angele Grossin, followed her mother’s profession, achieving early success at the Comedie Francaise. Unfortunately, at 21, she was killed in a theater fire, trapped while trying to save her pet dog. Beloved by both critics and public, her death was mourned in a large ceremony held shortly afterward.
GOOGLING RENOIR’S MADAME HENRIOT: Do you think Renoir was in love with her? Discover more paintings of Madame Henriot:
La Parisienne, 1874, National Museum Cardiff, Wales
Mothers and Children, La Promenade, 1876, Frick Collection, New York
Portrait of Madame Henriot, 1882, Hamburger Kunsthalle
And here is Renoir’s portrait of her daughter:
Young Girl in Blue Hat, 1881, Private Collection
In the public domain, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
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