Jean Renoir, Gabrielle et Fillette, c. 1895-6
Ambroise Vollard, Paris.
Ragnar Moltzau, Oslo, before 1957.
Sir Charles Clore, London.
Private Collection, Monaco & London.
Private Collection, U.S.A., acquired from the above.
A. Vollard, Tableaux, Pastels et Dessins de Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paris, 1918, Vol. I, no. 159, p. 40 (titled L’enfant à la pomme).
A. Vollard, La Vie et L’Oeuvre de Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paris, 1919, p. 124 (titled La pomme).
L’Atelier de Renoir, 1931, vol. I, p. 23, no. 56.
M. Dauberville, Renoir; Catalogue Raisonné des tableaux, pastels, dessins et aquarelles, Paris, 2010, vol. III, no. 2485 (illus. p. 455).
London, Marlborough Fine Art, French Masters of the XIXe and XXe Centuries, Oct. – Nov. 1954.
Stockholm, Nationalmuseum, Modern Konst ur Ragnar Moltzaus Samling, 28 April – 10 June 1956, no. 44 (titled L’enfant à la pomme); this exhibition later travelled to Zürich, Kunsthaus, 9 Feb. – 31 March 1957, no. 84; and The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, 19 April – 11 June 1957, no. 86.
Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Fra Renoir til Villon, 27 June – 1 Aug. 1956, no. 50 (titled La pomme); this exhibition later travelled to Helsinki, Atheneum, 15 Sept. – 28 Oct. 1956, no. 49.
Edinburgh, Edinburgh Festival, The Moltzau Collection, 1958; this exhibition later travelled to London, Tate Gallery, 3 Oct. – 2 Nov. 1958, no. 78.
The present work is the most highly accomplished pastel in a series of paintings and drawings that Renoir made in 1895-96 devoted to the subject of his second son Jean, born on 15th September 1894, and Gabrille Renard, a sixteen year old nursemaid from Essoyes, who had joined the family to help in the house and was to become perhaps Renoir’s most favoured model. Renoir was fascinated by childhood, seeking to re-create in his paintings of children his idea of the child’s immediate response to visual experience, unconditioned by the knowledge of good and evil; he was enchanted by children, he told Roux-Champion, because ‘their mouths utter only the words which animals would utter if they could talk’ (J. Renoir, Renoir, Paris, 1962, pp. 198, 310-11).
The only slightly larger oil painting of the subject, formerly in the Norton Simon Collection, replicates almost exactly the composition for the pastel. Renoir must certainly have executed them side by side. The oil painting was retained by Renoir and was rumoured to have been owned by Paul Cézanne (J. House, Renoir, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1986, p. 265).
There are a number of other related works. An earlier composition, depicting Jean and Gabrielle playing with some toys, is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.. A similar composition is in the Musée de l’Orangerie (Jean Walter & Paul Guillaume Collection). And there is a more close-up study of Jean and Gabrielle in the Bührle Collection, Zürich. In another pastel Renoir introduces a young girl, the daughter of the concierge of his family residence, holding an apple (present location unknown). In our work, he revises the girl’s pose, turning her to face forwards while offering the apple to Jean. It is this pose that he develops in the Murauchi canvas, presumably the final work in the series.
John House (op. cit., p. 264) notes the existence of a full-sized tracing of the composition, presumably used for its transfer to the final canvas. House adds: ‘the overall arrangement of paintings such as Gabrielle, Jean and a girl was the result of careful compositional planning rather than simply the direct depiction of a posing group. Early in 1896 Renoir wrote to a friend: “One must be personally involved with what one does… At the moment I’m painting Jean pouting. It’s no easy thing, but it’s such a lovely subject, and I assure you that I’m working for myself and myself alone.’” The artist Maurice Denis observed Renoir’s use of this technique in 1897. The colour palette, too, is very deliberately chosen, with Gabrielle’s red blouse standing out from the green wall behind her, and soft blues complementing the little girl’s blonde hair.
‘Such was the case with which Renoir scrutinized his son that it is almost possible to compose a chronology for the series based on the length of Jean’s hair, which was not cut until he was five years old. And a review of the series as a whole also reveals the extraordinary deliberation with which Renoir approached a body of work that appears, at first sight, among his most natural and spontaneous.’ (C.B. Bailey, Renoir’s Portraits, exh. cat., National Gallery of Canada, Ontario, 1997, p. 224). The focus of the composition is an apparently fleeting moment, as Jean reaches for the apple, but the figures are locked into a smooth sequence of relationships: all three figures are fitted within a semicircle, and Jean is protected by Gabrielle – only his hand reaches beyond her encompassing presence.
In his discussion of Renoir’s increasing receptivity to the influence of the old masters in the 1890s, House emphasised the influence of French rococo painters and of Corot. A favoured eighteenth century subject – the young child – captured Renoir’s attention after Jean’s birth in 1894. Referring to the present composition he noted that it ‘has clear echoes of many old master paintings, among them two which Renoir knew well in the Louvre, Correggio’s Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine and Ruben’s Hélène Fourment and Her Children. But such resemblances are generic, not specific; the conventions of such paintings suggested a format which Renoir chose to adopt here. The Rubens (which Renoir has copied in his youth) may have had a more particular relevance for him the in 1890s, for its technique: Jeanne Baudot remembered how Renoir examined the Louvre’s paintings by Rubens in these years, “seeking to discover the procedure he used when he laid in the beginnings of his paintings.” The thinly worked, freely brushed surfaces of Hélène Fourment and her children can well be compared with Gabrielle, Jean and a girl, where the brush fluently suggests forms and highlights without tight contours or loaded impasto.’
At this late stage in his career, Renoir has no qualms about applying to his own art the lessons he had acquired, both technical and stylistic, from his intensive study of the old masters. As firmly and deliberately composed as a Renaissance Virgin and Child, Gabrielle, Jean et une fille is, however, as intimate in feeling and as richly coloured and luminous in tone as his great Impressionist canvases of the 1870s.