Coco Chanel is said to have famously advised, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” Of course, this counsel came decades after Jeanne, the young woman who posed for this painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, donned her bevy of bows, and it’s unlikely that she would have parted with one of them. For though Jeanne was only a working-class girl from Renoir’s neighborhood of Montmartre, her dress—bows and all—was of the highest fashion at the time. With no waist seam, the white muslin princess-cut gown skims along the elongated contours of her body, contours made possible by the cuirass corset, the Spanx of the day, which not only cinched the waist and slimmed the hips but also made everything in between nice and smooth. The endless stream of bows (much to Coco’s dismay) further accentuate this long vertical silhouette, and their color beautifully complements the blue of her petticoat visible under the raised hem.
Similar dress styles can be found on high-society ladies in the portraits of the more traditional painter James Tissot, but Renoir took his à la mode fashion in a decidedly different direction, putting it on lower-class folks—Jeanne, his bother Edmond, and friend and fellow painter Robert Goeneutte—and setting them an informal sun-dappled garden. The scene, a girl on a swing amid lush greenery with attendant males, certainly recalls those deliciously frothy and frivolous Rococo confections known as fêtes galantes, but by using friends and neighbors as his models, Renoir seems to have breathed a new casual authenticity and charming intimacy into the garden gathering.
However, it was not the bows nor the dress nor the updated fête galante that caught the eyes of contemporary critics when Renoir first displayed the painting at the third Impressionist group exhibition in 1877. Rather they focused on the kaleidoscope of colored dots the artist used to try to capture the spectacular effect of sunlight filtering through the trees, deriding it as “impressionistic hail” or splattered grease. While these naysayers might not have appreciated Renoir’s avant-garde efforts to convey the ephemeral quality of light, they were right to see this ever-changing effect as being as much the subject of the painting as the sweetly swinging Jeanne and her bounteous bows. Both—the transient nature of light and the short-lived fashion of the time—were means by which Renoir and the rest of the Impressionists aimed to express a moment, their fleeting contemporary moment. Here in fact, Renoir even collapses the two, his loose brushwork dissolving Jeanne’s up-to-the minute fashion into the only-for-a-moment garden light.
With so many Impressionist approaches in play, it seems only fitting that it was another Impressionist, Gustave Caillebotte, who purchased the work. Bows, “impressionistic hail,” and all, the very modern fête galante remained in Caillebotte’s collection until his death in 1894.
—Lauren S., Associate Director of Communications
Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Swing, 1876. Musée d’Orsay, bequest of Gustave Caillebotte, 1894, RF 2738.