The present work is the most highly accomplished pastel in a series of paintings and drawings that Renoir made in 1895-6 devoted to the subject of this second son Jean (born on September 15th 1894) and Gabrielle 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.
The only slightly larger oil painting (65 x 80cm.) of the subject, formerly in the Norton Simon Collection and now in the Murauchi Museum, Japan, 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 Cezanne.
An earlier composition depicts just Jean playing with some toys with Gabrielle, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. A similar composition is in the Musée de l’Orangerie, Jean Walter & Paul Guillaume Collection. A more close-up study of Jean and Gabrielle is in the Buhrle Collection, Zurich. Renoir clearly enjoyed painting Jean and Gabrielle in a variety of poses. In another pastel, he introduces a young girl (apparently the daughter of the concierge of the building in which he lived with his family) holding an apple at the left of the composition (location unknown). In the present pastel, he revises the pose of the young girl, turning her to face forwards while offering the apple to Jean. It is this pose that he develops in the Murauchi canvas, surely the definitive work in the series.
John House (Renoir, exh. Cat., London, 1986) notes the existence of a full-sized tracing of the composition, presumably used for its transfer to the final canvas. Maurice Denis, in 1897, noted Renoir’s use of this technique. House goes on to say, “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 colour, too, is carefully composed. In contrast to the restricted palette of the contemporary woodland Bather, here, clear colours are set against each other, with Gabrielle’s red blouse standing out from the green wall behind her and soft blues beyond the little girl’s golden hair.
The focus of the composition is an apparently fleeting moment as Jean reaches for the apple, but figures are locked in to 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. Geffroy in 1896 described some of this group of paintings: “Masterpieces which tell of the patience and solitude of the woman without any sentimental mise-en-scène, simply by the posture and gesture of the arms which surround the child.”
“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.” (Colin B. Bailey, Renoir’s Portraits, exh. Cat. 1997, p. 224).
In his discussion of Renoir’s increasing receptivity to the influence of the old masters in the 1890’s, John House emphasized the influence of the French eighteenth century and of Corot. A favoured eighteenth century subject – the young child – became of considerable importance to him after the birth of his son Jean 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 Rubens’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 in the 1890’s, 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 of 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 1870’s.
Museum Collections Include:
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Musee d’Orsay, Paris; Guggenheim Museum, New York; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Art Institute of Chicago, IL; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Hermitage, St. Petersburg; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; National Gallery, Washington, D.C.; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Frick Collection, New York; Tate Gallery, London; Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.