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The Story Behind Renoir’s La Parisienne

La Parisienne is an 1874 portrait by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Although it may appear to be a rather traditional portrait, featuring actress Henriette Henriot, it was in fact a nod to the burgeoning modernity of Paris’s cultural scene. Critics praised Renoir for his technical detail, particularly in Henriot’s dress. Singulart explores the reaction to La Parisienne, as well as the artwork’s history and impact. We will also be discussing Renoir’s relationship with women– a subject that has been met with criticism in recent years. 

History of La Parisienne 

Photograph of Henriette Henriot
Photograph of Henriette Henriot

Renoir used Henriette Henriot as his model for La Parisienne. She was sixteen years old at the time of painting and had not yet embarked on her lauded career as an actress. She would go on to model for numerous other works for Renoir, including La Source and The Page

While Renoir had originally included a door and a curtain in the piece, it was eventually painted over in favor of the blue-gray background. This, along with the title La Parisienne, give the subject a certain anonymity and timelessness, suggesting that Renoir was aiming to portray a type of Parisian rather than Henriot specifically. 

While the woman’s clothing is done in great detail- perhaps a nod to Renoir’s parents who were a seamstress and a tailor- the background is done in looser, more haphazard strokes. It is believed that Renoir also added the fine details of the subject’s hair, earrings and eyelashes after the painting had received a layer of varnish. 

Why was this artwork considered controversial?

Although Henriot is modestly dressed by today’s standards, when the painting was released it shocked the viewers who caught a glimpse of her ankle poking out from under her dress. It was also commented that the angle of her hat was ‘coquettish.’ Perhaps it was the directness of her gaze that perturbed audiences; at the time Renoir produced La Parisienne, it was unusual for a sitting subject to be staring directly at the viewer. 

August Renoir, La Parisienne (1874)
August Renoir, La Parisienne (1874)

Reviews for La Parisienne were mixed. While critic Ernest Chesneau described it as “a failure,” it was appreciated by artist Paul Signac, who stated, “The dress is blue, a pure intense blue. The contrast makes the woman’s skin look yellowish and reflection makes it look green. The interaction between the colors is captured admirably. It is simple, fresh and beautiful.” Writing for Le Rappel, journalist Jean Prouvaire said: 

“The toe of her ankle boot is almost invisible, and peeps out like a little black mouse. Her hat is tilted over one ear and is daringly coquettish. Her dress does not reveal enough of her body. There is nothing more annoying than locked doors. Is the painting a portrait? It is to be feared so. The smile is false, and the face is a strong mixture of the old and the childish. But there is still something naïve about her. One gets the impression that this little lady is trying hard to look chaste. The dress, which is extremely well painted, is a heavenly blue.”

Renoir and women: a complicated relationship

While Renoir painted many women throughout his life- his friends, his wife, and his mistresses- it has been suggested that he may not have had a high level of respect for women. Although critic Théodore Duret stated, “I doubt any painter has ever depicted women in a more seductive way,” Renoir was also an unashamed chauvinist, saying things like “I like women best when they don’t know how to read, and wipe their baby’s behind themselves,” and “The woman artist is completely ridiculous.” 

It’s a curious dichotomy; Renoir certainly loved the women in his life fiercely, writing to his wife Aline, “I have a mad desire to kiss you in all the right places, a mad desire… Crazy about you,” and sustaining a close friendship with artist Berthe Morisot. He showed a paternal kindness towards Morisot’s daughter Julie, while going to great lengths to distance himself from his daughter with Lise Tréhot, Jeanne. Jeanne was given up for adoption as a child, and while she would periodically re-enter Renoir’s life, not even Aline knew of her existence. 

 August Renoir, Maternity (1885)
August Renoir, Maternity (1885)

Through works like Maternity, which depicts Aline feeding their infant son, Renoir portrayed his ideal image of femininity. However, feminist art critic Tamar Garb argues that Renoir is viewing these women through a fundamentally male gaze. She states:

“Renoir’s image of women can therefore be seen in the context of the most pervasive, dominant and reactionary nineteenth-century constructions of womanhood… His paintings operate, not as a reflection of social attitudes, but as a powerful non-verbal promoter of an identifiable political position. It was through the discourses and practices of ‘high art’ that the myth of ideal womanhood could achieve its highest expression and through the power of art’s apparent political neutrality that its centrality is obscured in the promotion of the nineteenth-century category ‘Woman’.”

Whatever Renoir’s intentions when painting his female figures, it cannot be denied that Renoir has created a legacy as someone who captured the female form in a doting, passionate way. 

Want to discover contemporary works in the style of Auguste Renoir? Check out Singulart’s Inspired by Auguste Renoir Collection.

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