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In the Woods
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919)
In the Woods, about 1877
Oil on canvas
22" x 18 3/8"
The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo
Matsukata Collection (P-1959-183)
Unlike many of the portraits and figure paintings made by Renoir, which he carefully composed and refined in his studio, he painted most of his landscapes outdoors, or in plein-air. Renoir typically painted landscapes as studies rather than for commission or submission to the Salon. This, in addition to the informality of plein-air painting, allowed Renoir the freedom to be more experimental when painting landscapes.

In the Woods and The Wave, though traditional in subject matter, are two paintings that exemplify Renoir’s boldly experimental technique. In the Woods depicts a wooded path through a forest, with sunlight filtering through the canopy of leaves. This subject and composition, called sous-bois painting (meaning literally "under the woods"), was a popular motif among painters in the Barbizon school who Renoir admired and from whom he drew inspiration. Sous-bois painting presented Renoir with the challenge of rendering a landscape in the indirect, filtered sunlight of the forest. Renoir layered small dots and dashes of paint to capture the changing light as it fell upon the trees and path. Because the texture of the paint is more or less consistent across the surface of the canvas, the forms of the trees and path are defined by Renoir’s careful placement and balance of color, rather than line. The golden yellows and greens in the top left corner form the leafy trees, while cool blues and deep greens on the right side of the picture are the trunks and low-hanging branches of other trees. Only small patches of sky are visible. Rising from the bottom of the canvas to its center is the sun-speckled path leading through the woods disappearing into a haze of muted brushstrokes.

The Wave 2
The Wave, 1883
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Oil on canvas
21 x 25 in.
Repository Dixon Gallery and Gardens
Memphis, Tennessee
The Wave is a similar experiment with brushstroke and color, though the effects are much different. In contrast to the stillness of In the Woods, this painting shows the sea churning with energy. Renoir captures what seems to be a single moment of the wave cresting, and records the turmoil of wave and sand swirling together as the wave crashes in an explosion of sea foam. Looking at the brushstrokes on the surface, one can easily see where Renoir moved his brush through the thick paint while it was still wet, more as though he were drawing rather than painting. The action of Renoir’s hand painting The Wave is an effective compliment to the action of the wave itself. Renoir completed several wave paintings during his career, in addition to many paintings of views of the sea, called seascapes.

These paintings are examples of some of Renoir’s most experimental techniques though through very different approaches. For In the Woods Renoir renders his subject with carefully patterned color, while he creates unbridled motion for The Wave by using wild brushstrokes of thick, unmixed paints. However, both paintings show his willingness to paint his subjects abstractly in order to achieve new effects in paint.

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