“These sketches are what he likes best, that’s where he puts all of himself, and deploys all of his audacity.” Albert André, 1925.
It is by examining the photographs made from the glass plates found in the archives of Ambroise Vollard, one of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s last dealers, that we can find a number of canvases covered in colored sketches representing various subjects. Sometimes these small vignettes cover the entire surface of the painting and the white canvas emerges in between the motifs. These “fragments,” executed in oil paint, allowed Renoir to improve his technique, like one would play scales to practice the skills necessary for playing a concerto. Indeed, such sketches have anticipated Renoir’s larger paintings of bathers, landscapes, or portraits.
Like notes taken in the heat of a moment, the sketches depict the artist’s spontaneity and inspiration, as he blended visions of fruits into landscapes or faces into nudes, defying any logic of subject, scale or composition. Taken together the fragments can be said to form startling surrealistic ensembles, before Surrealism’s time. Renoir’s friend Albert André wrote: “By contemplating only one fragment, we can feel a joy similar to the one we can feel in front of a fresco, stained-glass, soirée, or a sculpture.”
While some of these canvases have been cut apart, others are still intact [see top image]. Commenting on the notorious Maurice Gangnat sale in 1925, Elie Faure remarked: “Any of Renoir’s pictures reminds us of a giant fruit in which, playing with values and passages, all textures without changing in quality, would be permeated with this universal sap, coming from the inside of the fruit’s flesh to color its surfaces.”