Pierre-Auguste Renoir has been described as the “final representative of a tradition which runs directly from Rubens to Watteau”. What was meant by this was that Renoir was an admirer of beauty and feminine sensuality and that his work was evocative of the Flemish Baroque painting of Peter Paul Rubens and the Rococo styling of Antoine Watteau. But although these artists utilised colour and movement in the same way Renoir so often did, they certainly weren’t his only artistic influences. Having emerged in the midst of the Impressionist movement, and having already created some of his most memorable works including The Theatre Box (1874), Bal Du Moulin De La Galette (1876) and Luncheon Of The Boating Party (1880), Renoir went through a final period of artistic maturation in 1881.
He was 40 years old at the time, and whether it was due to his artistic desire to see the work of the great masters, or whether it was some sort of 19th Century cultural mid life crisis, Renoir went off on a little trip. He first travelled to Algeria and Northern Africa due to being a place that he strongly associated with the works of French Romanticist Eugene Delacroix, eventually moving on to Madrid in Spain to view the work of Spanish Baroque master Diego Velázquez. From Spain he travelled to Italy to see Titian’s masterpieces in Florence and view the greatest works of Raphael’s oeuvre in Rome. One notable incident on this trip through Italy was his meeting of the German composer Richard Wagner in Palermo in early 1882, and his painting his portrait in just 35 minutes. Unfortunately Renoir fell ill with pneumonia in Italy and he returned to Algeria for a period of six weeks while he recovered, before returning to France.
It seems clear from Renoir’s work following this Mediterranean jaunt that he sought to continue to evolve as an artist and to break away from the Impressionism with which he and his work were so strongly linked. One clear example of this is his 1883 oil painting Danse A La Campagne (Dance In The Country), which is currently housed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The work was originally commissioned by Impressionist art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel who was looking for works on the theme of a ball, and indeed it seems that a companion painting titled Danse A La Ville (Dance In The Town) was completed by Renoir in the same year. Durand-Ruel exhibited the work in 1883, bought the painting outright in 1886 and held it until the time of Renoir’s death in 1919.
As with so many Renoir works, the subjects of the painting were close friends of his – the man was Renoir’s friend Paul Lothe, and the woman depicted is Aline Charigot, who would later become Renoir’s wife. With a canvas that’s almost six feet by three feet in size, the figures are painted life-size and the drawing is more precise, the palette is more restricted and simple when compared to Renoir’s earlier works. Renoir admitted that his keener attention to detail, and specifically to his draughtsmanship, had stemmed from his viewing of Raphael’s work in Rome, and that the change in his style was very deliberate. By this stage in his life and career he was settled and comfortable, and as a result he was able to experiment without fear. As he said following his trip, “I will, I think, attain the grandeur and simplicity of the ancient painters.”