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Auguste Renoir The Two Sisters (On the Terrace)
From the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago
3 July 2001 – 16 September 2001

The Two Sisters is one of the peaks of Renoir's artistic career and one of the most popular items in the Art Institute of Chicago. The painting was given its second title — On the Terrace — by the dealer and patron of the Impressionists Paul Durand‑ Ruel, its first and for many years only owner. The painter was evidently happy with this, the more so since his figures were not indeed related.

The work was painted at Chatou, which Renoir considered “the most pleasant of all Paris suburbs”. Renoir and the friends whom he recorded in The Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880, Phillips Collection, Washington), in which the same stretch of river with its wooden banks serves as a background, still perceived Chatou as an ideal leisure spot. The Two Sisters, was painted on the same terrace of the Maison Fournaise as The Luncheon. It is believed that Renoir began The Two Sisters in April 1881 when he wrote to the critic Théodore Duret, “I am struggling with trees in colour, with portraits of women and children, and besides that I do not want to see anything…”

The year before on the same terrace Renoir had painted another girl, touchingly delicate, but lacking the charm of the new model (Girl on a Balcony, Cushing collection). This time he conceived a much more complicated composition and placed his subjects directly by the railing, obtaining the best structural interconnection of all elements. Renoir even included a clumsy tub of flowers, both for the sake of contrast and for greater compositional stability.

The Impressionists were painters of light and Light plays an exceptionally important role in the painting, glistening on the water, playing in the agglomerations of flowers and foliage behind the terrace, flashing out in the bud on the breast of the older girl and the chaplet of the younger and finally freezing in sparks in the eyes of both these charming heroines. The older girl's glowing scarlet hat, the resonance of colour that is expressively emphasized by the fresh green of the background, from the first rivets any gaze to the young face, its pure oval, tender skin, the beautiful eyes of a dreamer.

The Two Sisters was first presented to the public at the seventh Impressionist exhibition in the spring of 1882, together with such Renoir masterpieces as the Hermitage's Girl with a Fan, Girl with a Cat and A Box in the Opera (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown) and The Luncheon of the Boating Party.

It is not known who posed for the younger “sister”, but thirty years ago François Daulte, an expert on Renoir's work, established that the older girl was Jeanne Darlot (1863–1914). She was eighteen at the time. Soon she joined the Théâtre Gymnase where she acted supporting roles in comedies. The attractive actress quite often had her photograph in the papers. A decade later Jeanne Darlot had her début at the Comédie Française, but soon after she quit the stage. Evidently her theatrical career was not shaping the way she wanted. She did not marry either, becoming the kept mistress of a chocolate manufacturer, and later of an influential senator.

It is a special quality of the heroines of Renoir's paintings that they both resemble and do not resemble the models. Comparing photographs with the portraits it is obvious that in paintings they are immeasurably more attractive. Renoir's pictures are first and foremost paintings, and only then the motif or the personage. And his painting always contains a lofty image, yet one deliberately devoid of bombast, so that the artist could permit himself both humour and the play of allusions. Without remembering that, it is impossible to understand the detail in the bottom left corner of the composition that might at first glance be taken for flowers. There is little logical justification for such a detail, since the painting is set not in an interior, but in the open air. It has been suggested that the balls of wool appeared as Renoir's response to the insinuation of a critic who compared his painting to knitting. One of his masterpieces was described as “a weak sketch seemingly executed in wool of different colours”. On the other hand, Degas wittily recalled the balls of wool. “Renoir,” he said, “can do whatever he likes” and added, thinking of the wholly non-programmatic nature of his colleague's art, “You've seen a cat playing with balls of different coloured wool?”

The Two Sisters
Auguste Renoir
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