The bathers - by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

"After three years of experimentation, The Bathers, which I considered my masterwork, was finished. I sent it to an exhibition - and what a trouncing I got! This time, everybody, Huysmans in the forefront, agreed that I was really sunk; some even said I was irresponsible. And God knows how I labored over it!"

The abuse that greets any new direction in art seems bizarre in retrospect; and though Renoir had often been attacked, he could hardly have expected derision for this masterpiece of his periode aigre. It represents an amazing summation of everything he had done and learned. Here are the color and luminosity of a great Impressionist; drawing that results from his admiration of Ingres and Raphael; the benefits of his researches into the clarity and simplicity of fresco painting; the playful grace of his adored eighteenth-century French predecessors; and, above all, that sweet ingenuousness that can exalt a bit of fun into something of Olympian grandeur.

The charms of the picture are not confined to the ladies alone: few painters in the history of art could succeed like Renoir in matching the natural allurements of subject with the allurements provided by his own taste and style. The refined, melodic drawing-a violin-clarity of line - is one of the great achievements of art. It is especially important in this picture to savor the decorative silhouettes and spaces Renoir has so brilliantly invented: the arabesque made by the contours of rocks and feet is an example. The intricacy of shape and line-play is daringly counterpointed against the uncomplicated, cameo-smooth appearance of the figures themselves. Renoir here uses flat, unshadowed lighting, which ordinarily subdues modeling; and yet, through delicate tints, he produces a luscious roundness in the bodies.

The spirited poses derived in part from the seventeenth-century bas-reliefs of Girardon, at Versailles; the piquant faces, the vivacious gestures, the robust elegance are Renoir's. Cooks, housemaids, gamins, shopgirls-Renoir paints them, and the world understands how it was that the gods of ancient times coveted mortal women.