Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919) Les oliviers de Cagnes

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Lot 8
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
(French, 1841-1919)
Les oliviers de Cagnes

Sold for £ 446,500 (US$ 568,689) inc. premium
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919)
Les oliviers de Cagnes
signed 'Renoir.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
32.7 x 54.3cm (12 7/8 x 21 3/8in).
Painted in 1909


  • Provenance
    Maurice Gangnat, Paris; his sale, Hotel Drouot, Paris, 24-25 June 1925, lot 137 (sold for 55,000 F).
    Anon. sale, Palais Galliéra, Paris, 27 March 1962, lot 93 (sold for 168,000 F).
    Anon. sale, Artcurial Hôtel Dassault, Paris, 30 June 2003, lot 46.
    Richard Green, London, no. BA40MS.
    Acquired from the above by the present owner.

    J. Meier-Graefe, Renoir, Leipzig, 1929, no. 366 (illustrated p. 385; incorrectly dated 1911).
    G-P. and M. Dauberville, Renoir: catalogue raisonné des tableaux, pastels, dessins et aquarelles 1903-1910, Vol. IV, Paris, 2012, no. 2900 (illustrated p. 134).

    Professor Sir Kenneth Murray FRS FRSE FRCPath (30 December 1930 – 7 April 2013) and his wife Lady Noreen Elizabeth Murray (née Parker) CBE, FRS FRSE (26 February 1935 – 12 May 2011) were both molecular biologists. They and their team developed the vaccine against hepatitis B, the first genetically-engineered vaccine approved for human use. Together they founded the Darwin Trust of Edinburgh, a charity supporting young biologists in their doctoral studies. This charity, of which Sir Kenneth was Chairman, will benefit from the sale.

    Painted at Les Collettes in 1909, Les oliviers de Cagnes dates from a period of great artistic and financial fruition for Renoir, who by the beginning of the twentieth century was firmly established as one of the leading artists of the Impressionist movement. Struck with rheumatism at the height of his career, he had been advised by his doctor to move to a warmer climate and bought the farm of Les Collettes in 1907. Located on a hillside overlooking the medieval town of Cagnes on the Mediterranean coast, Renoir was so captivated by its rural nature that he left the original buildings untouched and instead built a new house in the grounds for his family to move into in 1908.

    This move has been credited as heralding Renoir's return to the landscape genre with a renewed vigour. Les Collettes and its environs would become an endless source of inspiration for the artist and works such as Les oliviers de Cagnes have been hailed as amongst the most radiant of his career. The present work shows the gnarled olive trees in Renoir's sun-drenched garden, a feature so characteristic of his Cagnes landscapes that his son, Jean, recalled them with great affection:

    'In the course of their 500 year lives, winds and drought, storms, frost, cropping and neglect have given them the strangest shapes. Some trunks resemble barbaric divinities. Their branches bow, twisting together to form motifs that even the boldest artist would never have dared to conceive [...] The very tall trees have an unusual majesty and an airy weightlessness. Their silver foliage casts delicate shadows. There are no sharp contrasts between the shadows and the light' (quoted in G. Adriani, Renoir, Cologne, 1999, p. 294).

    Renoir typically eschewed black as a colour and in Les oliviers de Cagnes instead models the shadows with russets, dark green and blue hues, allowing the eye to dance across the composition uninterrupted. The artist described the challenge that the olive trees of Cagnes presented in a letter to René Gimpel in 1918:

    'The olive tree, what a brute! If you realised how much trouble it has caused me. A tree full of colours [...] Its little leaves, how they've made me sweat! A gust of wind, and my tree's tonality changes. The colour isn't on the leaves, but in the spaces between them' (quoted in J. House, Renoir, exh. cat., London, Hayward Gallery, 1985, p. 277).

    The gust of wind and colourful trees that Renoir describes are perfectly evoked in the present composition. The arabesque shapes formed by the tree trunks and branches are emphasised by their modelling in soft curlicue brushstrokes which appear to sway beneath our gaze. This movement is echoed in the lilting sweeps which form the bright blue sky and the sun-dappled grass which rustles softly in the summer breeze. Renoir's preference for gentle, rounded brushwork and layers of transparent colours may in part show the influence of his early training as a porcelain painter from 1854 to 1858.

    The strong Mediterranean sunlight encouraged Renoir to brighten his already vivid palette and led to an increasing use of red in all its nuances to capture the ruddy Provençal earth. Flecks of red appear throughout the trees and grass, leading our eye around the work, while the blue of the figure's apron echoes the piercing blue of the sky and the cooler shadows in the foreground. The heat of the southern sun can be felt in the bleached tree trunks and occasional dash of arid yellow foliage.

    Renoir's landscapes from this period were typically painted on a smaller scale, but despite their intimate size are full works, densely painted and highly coloured. The surface of his canvases likewise becomes more enriched during his time at Les Collettes, with an emphatic lack of empty spaces. Figures increasingly merge with their surroundings, as man and nature alike are gently enveloped in the artist's bright palette and soft brushwork. This sense of universality, combined with Renoir's choice of scenery and warm light, illustrates his belief that a painting should be attractive to look at, bringing pleasure to both the artist and the viewer. He told the younger artist Albert André, 'I like a painting which makes me want to stroll in it'(quoted in J. House, op. cit., p. 14).

    In this aspect, Renoir remained apart from his Impressionist contemporaries who painted the modern world as they saw it, unembellished and un-idealised. Renoir's oeuvre maintained a distance from artistic doctrine, politics or the developments in photography and cinema which influenced so many others. His timeless compositions offer a refuge from modernity and indeed, by the time Les oliviers de Cagnes was painted, Renoir was increasingly looking back to eighteenth century classicism.

    Like his fellow artists, Renoir grew increasingly dissatisfied with the modes of traditional Impressionism by the end of nineteenth century and sought a new direction. Upon settling on the shores of the Mediterranean he rediscovered his love of classical antiquity, as well as his early interest in artists such as Watteau, Fragonard and Delacroix, whose works he had studied at the Louvre as a young student. Renoir found similarities in his idyllic surroundings with Watteau's landscapes in particular.

    In the present work Renoir references the tradition of French landscape painting not only through his choice of subject but also with his use of a framing device - the olive trees are pleasingly arranged in order, balanced on either side of the composition to form a pathway to the landscape beyond. The branches also serve as a screen to separate foreground and background. Renoir's return to a more structured and ordered composition marks a decided move away from the looser and more informal landscapes of his early Impressionist oeuvre.

    The light which suffuses Renoir's later landscapes found its roots not in Impressionism, the artist argued, but in the Old Masters. Upon returning from three years of travel around Europe in 1881-1883, Renoir praised the light in Raphael's frescoes in Rome: 'I will, I think, have gained that grandeur and simplicity of the ancient painters. Raphael, who didn't work outdoors, had nevertheless studied sunlight since his frescoes are full of it' (quoted in B. Ehrlich-White, Renoir: His Life, Art and Letters, New York, 1988, p. 114). Reinforcing his belief that it was not always necessary to paint en plein air in order to capture the effects of light, Renoir increasingly followed Corot's advice that a canvas started outside was best finished in the studio.

    Highly evocative of time and place, Les oliviers de Cagnes illustrates both its Impressionist and classical influences and stands testament to Renoir's joyful reworking of the landscape genre in the early twentieth century.

    The present work was originally owned by Maurice Gangnat, a retired industrialist who first visited Renoir's studio in 1904. He soon became a firm friend of the artist and a regular guest at the villa in Cagnes where this work was painted. Gangnat was particularly fond of Renoir's figure studies and his sun-drenched Mediterranean landscapes, amassing a collection of over 150 of the artist's works by the time of Renoir's death.

Saleroom notices

  • Please note this work will be included in the critical catalogue of the work of Pierre-Auguste Renoir being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute.
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