The Umbrellas

We are looking at a group of elegantly dressed Parisians in a hurry to open their umbrellas. Their blue domes form a composition of chaotically tangled shapes, reflecting the impression of the rapidity of the weather change. Only the woman in the foreground, carrying a large hat basket, seems to be not interested in the rain. And this despite the fact that there is nothing to protect her from a bad weather. She is without a coat, hat, gloves and umbrella. She stops and looks straight at the viewer, slightly lifting the edge of the dress so as not to get dirty by accident. Right behind her stands an elegantly dressed man, protecting himself under the umbrella. He is looking at the woman, perhaps trying to attract her attention or offer her protection from the rain. But she remains indifferent to his interest. It’s possible, however, that her ignorance is intended to fuel his affections.

umbrellas, Renoir, rain
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Umbrellas, ca. 1881-1886, National Gallery in London

Auguste Renoir painted the “Umbrellas” in two stages. He began the composition in 1881. Then returned to it in 1885 with the intention of finishing it for the upcoming Impressionist collective exhibition in New York. These four years of break were extremely formative for the artist. He became a bit disappointed with, or perhaps get tired of, the Impressionist way of painting, directing his attention to patterns from the past. This has been reflected in the composition itself. The group of women on the right was painted in the Impressionist period – they are shaped by light tones and soft modeling. The pair on the left belongs to a new stage in Renoir’s work and was completed in 1885. They are shown through subdued hues and more linear forms.

The artist paid special attention to a young woman in the foreground. The X-ray shows that the painter decided to repaint her outfit with a more contemporary, fashionable in 1885. She wears a dress that is characteristic of a working woman – a modiste or a milliner’s assistant. Interestingly, she does not wear a headgear herself, her hair is adorned only with a blue ribbon and a coral pin to match her earrings. The X-ray shows that in an earlier version the artist planned to show her also in a hat.

Representatives of the new working class were a frequent subject of the works of the Impressionists. Renoir was particularly interested in the figures of female modistes during the time when he was working on this painting. Several of his sketches showing women in modest black clothes with their heads uncovered have survived. The Umbrellas are the crowning of this fascination.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Chez la modiste 1878, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge

If you feel like hearing an interesting fashion story told by this painting, I invite you to watch this film prepared by Frick Collection for the Renoir exhibition in 2012.

This entry belongs to a series of CANON OF HISTORY OF ART

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