The Escape from Reality in the Masterpieces of Impressionism

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Foremost, ‘The two sisters’ (‘Les deux soeurs’) was painted by Renoir in 1881 on the terrace of ‘Maison Fournaise’, a restaurant in a suburban town to the west of Paris called ‘Chatou.’ It is known that the artist worked on various paintings there, such as ‘Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise’ (Renoir, 1975), all of which illustrate leisure boating along the Seine from different viewpoints and using different models. These ‘series’ of paintings were common amongst impressionist artists, who were influenced by the introduction of factories, enabling multiple copies, which were developed as a result of capitalism. (Thomson, 2000) Hence, the observer became a participant, by exploring the same landscape scene under different lights and during various occasions and seasons, enabling the observers to link up leisurely moments and capture time before the new century. It is an oil on canvas painting which measures 100.5cm x 81cm, currently held in the Art Institute, Chicago. Renoir sold the painting under the title ‘Women on the terrace beside the Seine’ to ‘Durand-Ruel’, who exhibited the painting under its’ current title in the 7th impressionist exhibition in March 1882. Although the title ‘The two sisters’ lead viewers to believe that the girls were family members, the art historian ‘François Daulte’ discovered that they were not related. (Bailey, 1997) The seated model was an aspiring actress, known as ‘Jeanne Darlaud,’ whereas the young girl still remains unidentified. Given the conventional compositional arrangements in the painting, one could suggest that it was commissioned by the dealer due to the high price (1,500 francs) that the dealer paid, as well as Renoir expressing his struggles in a letter to ‘Théodore Duret’ in regards to completing the painting and his unwillingness to leave ‘Chatou’ to go on a planned trip with said fellow artist, as it would have been necessary for him to get his clients approval. (The Art Institute of Chicago, 2019) In the painting, we can see that Renoir portrays the joy of two young girls enjoying a warm day in spring. Our eyes immediately focus on the center of the painting, where we see a portrait of two female figures, who are defined in comparison with the wispy landscape in the background. The older sister gazes to the left with narrowed eyes, as if deep in thought. The hint of a smile in her eyes does not correspond with her passive face, which makes the spectator feel uncomfortable and questions whether this young woman is trustworthy and as innocent as she appears.

When examining ‘Les deux soeurs,’ Lecomte commented that she “has the look of a modern Mona Lisa who knows all about love and seduction and is shamelessly flirting with you.” (Bailey, 1997) Below the absent gaze of the older sister, we are drawn to the startling, innocent blue eyes of the young girl, who seems to have appeared out of nowhere and has darted into the picture, given that Renoir has painted her with more pronounced rosy red cheeks and has left her outline more vague than that of her older companion. (The Art Institute of Chicago, 2019) Behind the young women, we can see vines draping over the terrace railing, flowers in bloom and sparse trees with budding pale green leaves, highlighting the flourishing effect of spring time. We could suggest that this landscape background coincides with the principal components of the painting- the two young girls-who are in the prime of their life, growing and developing each day, just like the nature surrounding them.

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Although the painting of ‘The two sisters’ describes a picturesque, peaceful setting, where two young girls take pleasure in the mundane, its composition proves to be more complex than its simplistic anecdote. Firstly, Renoir used loose, short, thick, unmixed brushstrokes for the landscape background, resulting in the artwork appearing unfinished- a technique employed by impressionist painters due to them having been influenced by photography at that time (Lloyd, 1989)- so that the impressionist painting resembles a snapshot and captures a fleeting moment of everyday life, making the painting more realistic and allowing Renoir to express his own perception of nature, rather than presenting replicas of the same scene from the view of other artists. However, the landscape background is contrasted against the portrait of the two girls, whom are painted using a more controlled technique, resulting in the brushstrokes on the girls faces being almost invisible. We could speculate that Renoir changed his technique as a result of his study trip to Algeria and Italy in 1880, where he viewed artworks by Raphael and other Renaissance masters (Clark, 1970), which inspired him to adapt his style and use a more decorative and traditional technique.

We feel both absent and included in the painting due to the lack of harmony between the foreground and background, as well as the combination of both open and closed spaces. On the one hand, every section of the terrace is occupied, creating the sensation that there is no room available for the spectator to join the two young girls. We could even say that the two girls are confined to the narrow terrace, as Renoir encloses the figures, by surrounding them with vines, plant pots, wool and even cutting them off at the knees. Again, here we can see the influence of photography on Renoir’s impressionist style, by him ‘cropping out’ the lower half of the girls’ bodies. However, the abundancy of the terrace is juxtaposed with the open space of the landscape background, as the use of light brushstrokes and thin layers of paint creates the impression of sparsity amongst the vegetation, allowing us to distinguish people rowing along the Seine, hence, inviting the spectator to take part in this leisurely activity. (The Art Institute of Chicago, 2019)

With regards to colour, Renoir makes a contrast between the vibrant red of the older girls’ hat and flowers on the hat of the younger girl, which is a primary colour, and the various shades of green of the foliage, balls of wool and plant pot, which are secondary colours, resulting in the two models standing out. Thanks to developments in technology, Renoir had access to pre-mixed paints in tin tubes and a wider range of vivid pigments, enabling him to work on this painting outdoors and at a faster pace. (Wallert, Hermens and Peek, 1995) Here, we can see that he took advantage of this technology by juxtaposing the woman’s dark blue dress against her vibrant red hat. Such a technique would have shocked viewers at the time, by exploiting the traditional concept of simultaneous contrast used by artists previously. (Thomson, 2000) One can clearly see that Renoir used unmixed brushstrokes, a typical impressionist style due to the discovery that colour could vary depending on the source of light, rather than always being one solid colour as was believed by previous artists. For example, Renoir used this technique when painting the young girls white dress and as a result, we can see each individual brushstroke of white, orange and blue. This technique allows the painting to become more realistic, reflecting how the little girl actually appears in the outdoor, spring sunlight, rather than how a white dress ‘ought’ to look. Equally, this same technique is applied in the landscape, through the use of unmixed shades of green, pale greys and mauves.

The subject of the painting would have dismayed the spectators, due to it focusing on the simple, everyday life of two young bourgeois girls, whom are enjoying their leisure time in the countryside, far away from the busy, industrial life of the city of Paris. These aspects of the painting would have frightened the Bourgeoisie at that time, who had just left the countryside to move to the ‘new and improved’ Paris, which was created by Georges-Eugène Haussmann after being commissioned by Emperor Napoléon III following the French Revolution. (Thomson, 2000) Instead, the Bourgeoisie were seeing everything they had wished to escape in Renoirs painting. In addition to this, one would not have found the two bourgeois girls as being ‘suitable’ as the models of a painting but the impressionists wanted to display everyday life which involved ‘ordinary’ people, not just Kings and Queens or the wealthy. Moreover, the presence of the basket of wool in the foreground would have startled viewers as the painting is of an outdoor scene, whereas balls of wool would have been more likely in an indoor setting and again, would not have been deemed ‘appropriate’ to be included in a painting. We could suggest that Renoir includes the wool in order to take a stance against criticism he received on a previous piece of work, in which a critic compared Renoirs painting to ‘a weak sketch seemingly executed in wool of different colours,’ as Colin Bailey states that, “Renoir incorporates this critical trope in order to deflate it.” (Bailey, 1997)

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