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Pierre-Auguste Renoir Dance at Bougival
Dance at Bougival, painted in 1883 by Pierre Auguste Renoir, is a masterpiece of Impressionism, and, although executed in the workshop after sketches made at the scene, captured a unique and iconic snapshot of a delightful sunny afternoon. Bougival, a favourite haunt of the Impressionist clique, was frequented by Parisians and locals alike. Located just a short distance from Paris, it was an elegant yet modest retreat from the upheavals of city life. Set along the banks of the Seine it was filled with open-air dance venues and cafes. It was here, at the nearby Bains de la Grenouillère, that Monet and Renoir painted side-by-side the same shimmering effect of light upon water, giving birth to one of the moment influential movements in the history of art.
Renoir, that relentlessly positive painter of life and exuberance, had already achieved popular acclaim with images full of vitality such as Le Moulin de la Galette. The model used for the young woman is Suzanne Valadon, a trapeze artist turned professional model, later famous as a painter in his own right and mother of the artist Maurice Utrillo. Her likeness also appears in Renoir's The Bathers from 1887. She is the focal point of the swaying action and Renoir's deft touch reminds one of one of Vermeer's young musicians sat at a virginal. Valladon encapsulates the wilful surge of modernity congregating outside of the city centre for an afternoon of frivolity and distraction. Renoir makes clear his preference for figurative elements, capitalizing on intense color and luxurious layers of thick oil paint to heighten the feeling of pleasure enjoyed by the couple reeling and swaying in movement. The woman's face, framed by her red cap, is the centre of attention, for both the viewer and that of her companion. The effect of movement and immediacy is tuned to perfection by the swirl of the woman's skirt and the blurred focus of the revellers gathered around a table in the background.
Taking as granted the popular acclaim and ubiquity of the image, Renoir's grand achievement in Dance at Bougival is to recover the human form, which had almost disappeared from view during the Impressionist period. Valladon's dance is rendered as an entirely impressionistic composition and demonstrates the different paths and tactics that Monet and Renoir took in manifesting the same vision. Although once a reflection of contemporary fashion and a trendy weekend retreat, Renoir's Dance at Bougival comes to us as a towering canvas of modernity, nostalgia, and movement.
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