In the present composition, the hat serves as a formal device that unites the upper right quadrant of the composition with the lower left - each of these areas is dominated by the presence of flowers: the roses on the hat and the lilacs in the hands of the girls. Renoir has executed the flowers with a lighter, looser brushwork in comparison to his more solid treatment of the girls’ faces. With this approach, he is able to express both his careful draftsmanship and his freer “Impressionist” style of painting. He unites the composition with a soft pink tonality that is evident not only in the flowers and the girls' complexions, but also in the undertones of the blue background and the highlights of the dresses. Over all, this picture demonstrates Renoir’s ability to render the nuances of color and the reflection of light on a given surface, both techniques that he had perfected in his masterful canvases from the 1880s.
During the 1890s, Renoir’s social life was divided into two distinct parts, which were reflected in his work. On one side were his elite clientele whom he depended upon for portrait commissions, and on the other were the lesser-known models, most often young girls, such as his housemaid Gabrielle, whose youth and beauty offered him a diversion in his old age. While painting formal society portraits sustained the artist’s way of life, rendering portraits of unidentified young women enabled him to take greater liberties in the execution of his paintings.
The models for the present composition were most likely Julie Manet (see fig. 4), the daughter of Berthe Morisot and the niece of Edouard Manet, and Paulette (Paule) Gobillard, her first cousin. During the summers of 1890 and 1891, Renoir frequently visited Morisot at Mézy, and it was here that he probably completed this picture. At the time he painted this work, Julie Manet, wearing the hat, was around 12, and her cousin, who is seen handling the lilacs on the left, was probably in her early teens. In his memoirs, Renoir’s son, Jean, wrote about his father’s relationship with these two girls and what became of each of them in later years: “Before she died, Berthe Morisot had asked my father to look after her daughter, Julie, then aged seventeen and her nieces, Jeanie and Paule Gobillard. Being a trifle older than the other two girls, Paule took charge of “the Manet house,” as my parents called the mansion at number 41, rue de Villejust. Jeanie was to marry the poet Paul Valéry, after whom the street was later to be renamed. Paule became so wrapped up in playing the part of the big sister that she never married. Julie, a painter herself, was to marry the artist Rouart. In Berthe Morisot’s day, the Manet circle had been one of the most authentic centres of civilized Parisian life. Although my father, as he grew older, avoided artistic and literary sets like the plague, he loved spending an hour or two at the house on the rue de Villejust. It was not intellectuals that one met at Berthe Morisot’s but simple good company” (Jean Renoir, from “Renoir, My Father,” reprinted in ibid.).
Fig. 1, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Deux fillettes lisant, circa 1890-91, oil on canvas, Paul Kantor Gallery
Fig. 2, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Deux filllettes lisant, circa 1890, oil on canvas, Private Collection
Fig. 3, Model’s hat on a table in Renoir’s studio. Photograph Musée Renoir, Cagnes
Fig. 4, Photograph of Julie Manet, 1894
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