Although it was painted in the mid-1870s, this small painting has all the intimacy of a work by Edouard Vuillard or Pierre Bonnard from the 1890s. Its first owner, Eugène Murer, was a petit-bourgeois collector from Rouen and Auvers-sur-Oise who knew most of the impressionists well and bought important paintings from Pissarro, Renoir, and Cézanne in the mid- and late 1870s. (Renoir painted a superb portrait of Murer in 1877, now in a private collection in New York. By that time, Murer owned ten major paintings by Renoir.) This is among Renoir's most luscious impressionist "souvenirs," and it is clear that Murer knew not only the artist but also his sitters, the amateur critic and bureaucrat Georges Rivière and the artist's model Marguerite Legrand, known professionally as Margot. Thus, this work of art was not made for the anonymous market of urban capitalism but for a small circle of friends whose common interest was art.
Renoir enjoyed painting on this scale in 1876-1877, and he used many of his friends as models for various genre scenes, most of which were posed and painted in the studio. "At the Café" (Rijksmuseum Kroeller-Mueller, Otterlo, Holland) and "At the Milliner's" (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge Massachusetts) are of virtually identical dimensions and have an equally "graphic" facture. In both, Renoir set up an urban interior situation and painted it not in the city but in his large studio on rue Saint-Georges.
In making a rapid sketch from life, Renoir applied his paint with short, overlapping wrist gestures that very much resemble the strokes of a pencil or crayon. Accordingly, this, like the other small canvases of 1876-1877, has a nervous, wobbly surface that was repulsive to academically inclined critics of the period. Although the linear strokes looked fairly conventional and, hence, acceptable when they described hair or drapery, their convoluted character was antithetical to the conventional depiction of skin.
Georges Rivière, a senior employee at the Ministry of Finance, was a fervent amateur critic of Impressionism who appeared in many of the artist's works of the period 1875-1878. He championed not only his hero, Renoir, but all the impressionists, in his journal, "L'Impressioniste," published weekly during the month long run of the impressionist exhibition of 1877. This delightful painting was not included in the impressionist exhibitions of 1876 or 1877, but it was surely painted during those years. Its similarity of facture to Renoir's "Small Female Bather" (Lewyt Collection, New York), painted in 1876, perhaps gives greater weight to the earlier of the two dates.
"Impressionist Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture from the Wendy and Emery Reves Collection," page 63