European
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Pierre August Renoir (French, 1841–1919),
Young Girls at the Piano (La Leçon de piano) , ca. 1889
oil on canvas, 22 x 18¼, 55.9 x 46.36 cm
Museum purchase, 1944.20

One of the leaders of the Impressionist movement, Renoir is equally well known for his affectionate depictions of women and girls. Born in Limoges, he moved to Paris with his family, where he was apprenticed as a porcelain painter in 1856. Using his meager wages, Renoir attended painting lessons in the atelier of Charles Gleyre, where he met Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille. He joined with them to organize the first of the Impressionist exhibitions in 1874 and participated in subsequent shows. Unlike other Impressionists, who worked mainly with landscape and natural light, Renoir preferred to focus on individuals, most of whom he depicted in moments of leisure, indoors and out. 

Young Girls at the Piano dates from a time of crisis in the artist’s career. By the late 1870s, Renoir felt that he had “wrung Impressionism dry” and, influenced by Raphael’s work on a trip to Italy in 1881, turned away from fleeting effects of light for a more monumental approach to form. Initially, his efforts to use more precise draftsmanship resulted in paintings that were, in his own words, “extraordinarily dry,” but by the end of the decade, he had evolved the approach, seen in Young Girls at the Piano, that combines more exact drawing with the warm tones of his earlier Impressionism. The identity of the girls in the picture is not known, but the Joslyn work is the first, and most spontaneous, prototype for a painting commissioned by the French government. Here the glowing palette, the obvious affection of the two girls for one another, and their absorption in the music, as well as the comfortable surroundings, produce a reassuring image of domestic well-being.

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