1875-76; Oil on canvas, 24 3/8 x 20 in; Philadelphia Museum of Art
Renoir rarely worked on one canvas at a time, and Nini in the Garden, signed but not dated, belongs to the period immediately before work on the Moulin de la Galette began in earnest. Inspired by Monet's work at Argenteuil, Renoir had been experimenting since the early 1870s with the motif of young women in the garden: in size, , and orientation, Nini in the Garden may be loosely grouped with Woman with a Black Dog, 1874 (formerly, Charles Clore Collection, London) and the radiant Umbrella of 1878 (sale, Christie's, May 11,1988, lot 15). These paintings are identical in size (24 by 20 inches); each explores the problem of integrating the clothed female figure in ambient daylight and achieving a harmony between elegant Parisienne and exuberant nature. Even more closely related is Young Girl on the Beach, which was probably painted at the same session: there, the model, Nini Lopez, sits on a similar garden chair wearing identical dress, but her presence is more assertive, now the chief element in the composition. Both paintings convey the delight that Renoir experienced in the large garden at the rue Cortot. Georges Riviere, who had accompanied Renoir in his search for the ideal Montmartre studio, recalled that "as soon as Renoir entered the house, he was charmed by the view of this garden, which looked like a beautiful abandoned park. Once we had passed through the narrow hallway, we stood before a vast uncultivated lawn dotted with poppies, convolvulus, and daisies." Beyond this, Riviere continued, lay a beautiful allee planted with trees stretching the full length of the garden--this was the view that Renoir used for his celebrated painting The Swing (Musee d'Orsay, Paris)--and at the end was a fruit and vegetable patch with dense bushes and poplar trees. It is difficult to know exactly which corner of the garden is represented in this painting, although Nini does appear to be sitting at the edge of an untidy lawn.
In Nini in the Garden, which should be dated around 1875-76, Renoir's handling is energized, nervous, and experimental. He makes no attempt to unify the paint surface of his canvas: ridges of rich impasto sit alongside areas of barely covered ground. His color is nonetheless applied in dabs and strokes of varying touch, appropriate to the forms they describe. Thus, the leafy bushes in the background are a mosaic of greens, browns, and ochers; the sky in the upper left a series of blue strokes placed over the greens--the most obvious of Renoir's borrowings from Monet. Nini herself is painted more emphatically, the violet blue of her hat and underskirt the densest blocks of color in the composition. Nini's costume is very similar to, if not identical to, the one she wears in Departure from the Conservatory. Comparison helps establish the design of Nini's ensemble as it appears in Nini in the Garden: dark tunic over a light pinafore dress, with dark underskirt, this last element just visible through the grass and plants.
It is clear, however, that costume is of little concern to Renoir here. His chief interest is to record the sunlight as it filters through bushes and trees onto the diminutive and fashionably dressed Parisienne. He had already investigated these effects on the nude; Nini in the Garden marks an early stage in such treatment of the dressed figure. Somewhat tentatively, Renoir painted the reflections of foliage on Nini's face and the larger shadows on her dress. Her golden brown tresses are overwhelmed by the greens and browns of the background foliage; the forms of her dress dissolve in the dappled light and shadow.
Those elements of Renoir's luminist vocabulary that would cause such outrage in 1877--his colored shadows, the violet tonality of his outdoor scenes--are present in this early example: for example, the line of chartreuse that defines Nini's cheek and chin as well as the mauve patches of shadow on her dress. Although his plein-air painting still owed much to Monet, ... in the paintings he made in the garden of the rue Cortot, Renoir developed what Theodore Duret would consider his most striking contribution to Impressionism: depicting the human figure in the endlessly changing, mobile light of nature. Renoir's exploration of light dancing over the human figure would achieve full expression in The Swing and Moulin de la Galette. In Nini in the Garden such effects are rendered a little hesitantly, but with the daring of experiment...