Pierre-Auguste Renoir Two Sisters on the Terrace
Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Two Sisters on the Terrace painted in 1881 is a disquieting work of bourgeois luxury, alarmingly ethereal, and unsettling in its formal perfection. Set on the same balcony from which his iconic earlier canvas The Luncheon of the Boating Party was painted – a wing of the Maison Fournaise restaurant in Chatou near Paris – Renoir can be seen in the act of consolidating a distinct Impressionist iconography in his intermingling of rigid Academic portraiture and loose social realism. The Maison Fournaise was a locale that would accept diners and revellers from all social backgrounds and economic classes, encouraging Parisians of all classes to take a brief sojourn in the suburban joint. During the late nineteenth-century crowds flocked to Chatou to engage in a weekend of boating free from the social tensions still boiling under the surface in Paris. It was a favourite haunt of the Impressionists Monet, Renoir, and Sisley, as well as their wider circle of painters, writers, and critics, and the unique effects of light on the effervescent blue of the Seine, soon became an essential element in the development of their own unique styles.
Two Sisters on the Terrace, rendered in crisp pastel shades, is a dominating yet tender depiction of two sisters who, in real life, were simply models unrelated by birth. From the early1880s, Renoir began to return to the human figure as the protagonist of his compositions. The taller of the two sisters is Jeanne Darlot, then aged just eighteen years. At the time, Jeanne was a budding actress who joined the Theatre Gymnasium to play supporting roles in comedies, and often photographed in the newspapers. Becoming the acknowledged mistress of a chocolate maker, Jeanne faded into obscurity like so many of the subjects the Impressionists lovingly depicted and then almost instantaneously forgot.
While not abandoning his landscape-dominated Impressionist approach, Renoir's style took a drastic change of direction. Two Sisters on the Terrace demonstrates Renoir's remarkable talent as a portraitist, inviting the viewer to double-take through the inclusion of affective elements depicted with the deftest of touches. In true Impressionist style sunlight illuminates the full figures of his sitters without creating shadows, as in the Japanese woodblock prints that held such a powerful allure for Renoir's generation. Renoir's lines seem almost to find their utter vanishing point, creating an almost abstract effect. In this way, Two Sisters on the Terrace remains a profoundly modern painting.
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