Essay on Impressionism: Visual Analysis of Les Deux Sœurs by Auguste Renoir

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In the 19th Century, an art movement known as ‘Impressionism’ evolved with a group of Paris-based artists whose independent exhibitions brought them to fame during the 1870s and 1880s.The artists known today as Impressionist, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas (and several others) could not afford to wait for France to accept their work. “They all had experienced rejection by the Salon jury in recent years and felt that waiting an entire year between exhibitions was too long. They needed to display their work and they longed to sell it.” Rather than painting in a studio, the Impressionists found that they could capture the momentary and transient effects of sunlight by working swiftly, in front of their subjects, en plein air as opposed to in a studio, thus resulting in a greater awareness of light and colour and the shifting pattern of the natural scene. Brushwork became rapid and broken into separate “dabs” in order to render the fleeting quality of light. Auguste Renoir’s Les deux sœurs is a large panel depicting a young woman and her younger sister seated outdoors holding a small basket containing balls of wool. In typical impressionist style, Renoir depicts the radiance of two lovely young women on a warm and glorious day in his painting through his utilization of vivid colours and its variegated composition and vibrant background. This essay intends to address three aspects of visual analysis of the above work: firstly, its background, secondly, its composition and finally, an interpretation of the painting will be given.

Les deux sœurs is an oil on canvas painting with the dimensions 100.5 cm × 81 cm. It is believed that “Renoir worked on the painting whilst on the terrace of the Maison Fournaise, (a restaurant located on an island in the Seine in Chatou, in the western suburb of Paris)”, the prime site of modernity in the late nineteenth century. Such images of suburban and rural leisure outside of Paris were a popular subject for the Impressionists, notably Monet and Auguste Renoir. Several of them lived in the country for part or all of the year. “New railway lines radiating out from the city made travel so convenient that Parisians virtually flooded into the countryside every weekend.” Additionally, it is interesting to note that the two girls depicted were not actually sisters in real life, but rather, two young models that Renoir used in his painting. It is unknown who posed as the youngest 'sister”; however, thirty years ago François Daulte, an expert on Renoir’s work, established that the older girl was Jeanne Darlot (1863–1914) who was eighteen at the time. To quote a critic from the State Hermitage Museum, “It is a special quality of the heroines of Renoir’s paintings that they both resemble and do not resemble the models. Renoir’s pictures are first and foremost paintings, and only then the motif or the personage.”

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Having considered the context of the painting, this essay will now consider its structure. Renoir’s composition is said to be “metaphorical in nature”. The young child looks straight at the observer with her beautiful, bright blue eyes, enticing and making them feel part of the painting; hence, conveying the sense of an open composition. An anonymous critic suggested, “It is almost as if Renoir wanted to imply the innocence of the childlike view that she has of the world at that age.” Furthermore, her elaborate flowery hat captures the viewer’s attention and the eye is drawn to the bold colours dilineated through the flowers which lie in stark contrast to her sister’s murky clothing, where a bluish black is utilized (similar to that used in Umbrellas). “Impressionists were known for their extensive use of complementary colours in order to bring depth to an object and even shadows. This often made the object in question look livelier and more realistic. They sought to capture not only the appearance of what they saw, but the atmosphere as well.” From a technical perspective, the painting is a “tour de force” in which Renoir juxtaposes solid, almost life-size figures against a landscape that like a stage set, seems a realm of pure vision and fantasy. The sewing basket in the left foreground evokes a palette, holding the bright, pure pigments that the artist mixed, diluted, and altered to create the rest of the painting. It has been suggested that the balls of wool appeared as Renoir’s response to the insinuation of a critic who compared his painting to knitting. One of his masterpieces was described as “a weak sketch seemingly executed in wool of different colours”.

Finally, in addition to the painting’s contextual background and composition, an interpretation needs to be established. At first glance, Les deux sœurs is one of Renoir’s most captivating and approchable paintings. The ebullient and informal technique compliments this scene of relaxed companionship between the two sisters. Psychoanalyst, George Hagman reccomends that “The figure groups that appear in Renoir’s work (that portray) everyday images of contemporary life must be viewed from two perspectives; one social, the other artistic.” The imagery of relaxed entertainments and excursions was widespread in Paris. “In the world of fine art painting, to which Renor’s canvas unequivocally belonged, such subjects, (particularly the depiction of the Bourgeoisie) was most (common). Moreover, the subjects Renoir chose to paint suggest an active engagement with many of the central issues in the contemporary art world, specifically an actue awareness of the question of modernity in his painting, of how the everyday experiences of modern city life might be transformed into fine art.” In characteristic impressionist style, Renoir suggested the details of a scene through freely brushed touches of colour, so that his figures softly fuse with one another and their surroundings. His painting, Les deux sœurs illustrates the influence of colour in the works of Eugène Delacroix, the luminosity of Camille Corot, and the realism of Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet. In the 1860s, through the practice of painting light and water en plein air, he and his friend Claude Monet discovered that the colour of shadows is not brown or black, but the reflected colour of the objects surrounding them.

In conclusion, this essay has focused on three aspects of visual analysis; each of which has been considered from the viewpoints of various critics and Art Historians such as Belinda Thomson. Auguste Renoir’s Les deux sœurs exemplifies the impressionist approach to subjects such as still life paintings and portraits of ordinary people including the middle class during leisure time activities in gardens, parks, or at the seaside, and workmen or rural people at work. Departing from the style of the conservative painters who focused on portraying wealth and grandeur in their work, Renoir took interest in portraying people in everyday, informal situations. The painting shows that he approached his human subjects with a fluid intensity and considerable empathy for the assistants he portrayed. The mastery of colour in the painting further conveys the personal warmth that came from inside Renoir himself. Therefore, by illustrating the ordinary, he made Les deux sœurs a pleasant subject that spectators could admire and appreciate, “as if having just stumbled upon these two young women as they sat on a terrace, perhaps waiting for someone or perhaps just resting.”

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