As famous as Sarah Bernhardt in her day, Léontine Pauline Jeanne Samary was a successful actress at the Comédie-Française when she first sat for Pierre-Auguste Renoir in 1877. Between 1877 and 1880 Renoir recorded the young soubrette’s features in oil and pastel at least a dozen times.
The Art Museum’s pastel of Mlle. Samary captures her vivacious personality. With its delicately rendered facial features and spontaneous handling of the medium, this is a striking example of Renoir’s Impressionist portraits. The actress leans on the arm of a chair covered with a red patterned fabric and holds a multicolored feather fan in her right hand. The triangular arrangement of her torso and the fluid contours of her limbs reinforce the serenity of the pose without the distracting theatrical trappings. Here Mlle. Samary wears the same low-cut pink satin ball gown trimmed with white lace as in Renoir’s full-length 1878 portrait, which is now in the State Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg, Russia.
The son of a tailor and a dressmaker, Renoir initially was apprenticed to a porcelain painter. In 1862 he embarked on a career in painting and was influenced by the Barbizon landscape school of painters. When he came into contact with Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Cézanne, however, he developed a broader approach to the treatment of light and shade. He made his Salon debut in 1864, but exhibited with the Impressionists between 1874 and 1877, and again in 1882.
Renoir was the leading Impressionist figure painter, and the only Impressionist to achieve financial security through the practice of portraiture. In about 1898 he began to suffer from arthritis, but he continued to the end to create private portraits of his family.