Impressionist Figure Painting

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919), Study. Torso of a Woman in the Sunlight, 1875-76. Oil on canvas, 31 7/8 × 25 9/16 in. Musée d'Orsay, Paris, Bequest of Gustave Caillebotte, 1894

Renoir was a central figure in the Impressionist circle, a group that included Frédéric Bazille, Mary Cassatt, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, and Alfred Sisley, among others. The Impressionist movement advocated for the exhibition of works of art—often landscapes or scenes of modern life—in venues other than the official Salon.
Despite Renoir’s interest in painting “flesh pollen,” as poet Stéphane Mallarmé phrased it, of the more than seventy works he submitted to the Impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1882, he only included one nude, Study. Torso of a Woman in the Sunlight. However, during this period he produced several half-dressed and nude figure paintings in which his primary challenge was to capture, in his own words, “skin that caught the light well.” For Renoir, the nude—the sanctioned academic subject—could be adapted to meet the Impressionists’ call for experimentation with color and light. Critics such as Edmond Duranty embraced this anti-classical approach to painting: “Farewell to the uniform monotony of bone structure, to the anatomical model beneath the nude.”