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La Collerette (Claude Renoir) / The Ruff (Claude Renoir)



Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
La Collerette (Claude Renoir) / The Ruff (Claude Renoir)
oil on canvas
AGLC 357 @ A.G Leventis Gallery

The public and the art critics of the time were quick to observe, among the painters baptised the ‘Impressionists’, following their first exhibition in Paris in 1874, the predilection of one of them, namely Pierre-Auguste Renoir, for the portrayal of the human form. His most noted masterpieces – La Loge (1874; London, Courtauld Gallery); Bal du Moulin de la Galette (1876; Paris, Musée d’Orsay); or Le Déjeuner des Canotiers (1880-1881; Washington, DC, Phillips Collection) – are scenes of modern life in which each figure, most often represented by non-professional models or friends of the painter, retains a strong physical individuality. From the very beginning of his career, Renoir also revealed himself to be one of the most remarkable portraitists of his era. This activity was also a source of necessary income for the artist. Having included portraits among the first works that he sent to the Paris Salon, it was also with a portrait, that of Madame Charpentier and her children (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), that he achieved his first real, official success in 1879. This magnificent achievement led to an entire series of commissioned portraits, notably of children, which gradually contributed to establishing the painter’s reputation. Once he became famous, Renoir undertook fewer commissioned portraits, restricting himself to painting his friends and family. He often painted his sons Pierre Renoir (1885-1952), who became a celebrated actor, and Jean Renoir (1894-1979), the universally admired film director; the painter’s youngest child, Claude Renoir, known as Coco (1901-1969), was also a particularly frequent model during the final years of the artist’s career. La Collerette can be compared to the full-length portrait, dated 1909, of the young boy (Paris, Musée de l’Orangerie, Collection Jean Walter et Paul Guillaume). Coco is portrayed here in a clown costume, dressed in a loose red tunic and white stockings, standing out against a very theatrical background, featuring a marble column and pilaster. In its composition full of authority and details suggesting a sumptuous decor, this work is advisedly placed in the tradition of the ceremonial portraits made by the Old Masters. Velázquez (1599-1660), Rubens (1577-1640) or Veronese (1528-1588), artists belonging to a past much revered by Renoir, were generally evoked by those commenting on this imposing portrait. At the same time, this frontal depiction of a clown also suggests a certain kinship with the masterpiece of Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles, which Renoir could have admired in the Louvre. More than the ambiguous world of the circus or the sideshow, which has fascinated painters from Edgar Degas (1834-1917) to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) and Georges Seurat (1859-1891) to Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Renoir returned to the familiar universe of costumed children at the Carnival; in 1902 he had already painted Jean Renoir, who was then about the same age as Coco, in a white Pierrot costume, displaying the splendour of satin fabric (Detroit Institute of Arts). In the painting of Coco, he also took advantage of the visual resources offered by the fancy-dress costume by opposing the colour red, the white of the collar and the black of the cap. The spirit of these fresh images of children is also far removed from the portrait of a professional clown, James Bollinger Mazutreek, face painted, enigmatic, in character, violin in hand, in the arena where he appears, painted by Renoir at the beginning of his career, in 1868 (Otterlo, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Muller).   

The circumstances of the sittings for the large painting in the Musée de l’Orangerie of Coco as a clown, dated 1909 by the artist, which, as an adult, Claude Renoir recalled with great gusto, suggest that the elaboration of the canvas did not proceed without difficulties: ‘I remember the dramatic moments that marked the final sittings for my portrait as a red clown. I must have been nine or ten; the costume was complemented by a pair of white tights, which I obstinately refused to wear. In order to finish the canvas, my father demanded I put on the tights; there was nothing to be done; they itched. So then my mother brought a pair of silk tights; they tickled. Threats were made, followed by negotiations; I was alternately promised a spanking, an electric train set, boarding school, and a box of oil paints. Finally, I consented to wear cotton tights for a few moments; my father, containing his rage but close to exploding, finished the painting despite the contortions I carried out so as to be able to scratch myself.’   

Rather than a sketch for the large full-length portrait in the Musée de l’Orangerie, with its face as smooth as porcelain, the A. G. Leventis Foundation Collection painting, with its more visible brushstrokes, seems to be a repetition limited to the face of the young model. Showing evidence here and there of a light underdrawing, the work, painted on a fine commercially prepared canvas, was probably executed on a loose piece that was subsequently fixed onto the wooden stretcher. This practice is very frequently found with Renoir, who, especially towards the end of his career, worked sometimes on disparate and unrelated subjects on the same loose pieces of canvas, which were then cut and mounted onto stretchers. Acquired at a public sale by A. G. Leventis in 1964, and never having been exhibited since, La Collerette is a remarkable discovery which will delight visitors to the A. G. Leventis Gallery.

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About the artist

He found work as a porcelain painter at age 13. In 1862, he began studying in the studio of Charles Gleyre, where he met Claude Monet, Frédéric Bazille and Alfred Sisley, with all of whom he went on to lead the Impressionist movement. He is known for his portraits, especially depictions of children, his sensual nudes, floral still lifes and his depictions of modern life, in which each figure preserves their individuality. He experimented with new techniques and styles throughout his career and was the first Impressionist to shift away from the group’s main direction. Influences on him were wide-ranging, from Raphael, Velázquez and Rubens to Rococo painters, Ingres and his own contemporaries. Despite the crippling rheumatism of his later years, he painted until the last hours of his life.

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