Unlike his Impressionist contemporaries Monet, Manet and Sisley, Renoir did not paint still lifes until the latter part of his career. With his light, swift touch Renoir took great pleasure in the sensuous qualities of oil paint and often considered still life painting to be a welcome break from his larger projects. From around 1880 he began to concentrate more on painting flowers, fruit and everyday objects. He found that these still lifes afforded him the opportunity to focus solely on colour and form, without the distraction of composition and perspective. Renoir recommended to Manet’s niece Julie to paint still life ‘in order to teach yourself to paint quickly’ (quoted in J. Manet, Journal, 1893 – 1899, Paris, p.190), and the numerous works, often elaborate and ambitions, which he executed in this genre over the course of his career attest to his sustained interest in still-life as an end in itself. Indeed it was in his still-life compositions that Renoir pursued some of his most searching investigations of the effects of light and colour on objects and surfaces. Renoir told his biographer, Albert André, that it was in his small-scale still-lifes that ‘he put the whole of himself, that he took every risk’ (A André, 1928, p.49). Light pervades Nature morte aux fruits, suffusing the scene with an atmospheric radiance. The rich red and yellow hues of the apples are highlighted with luminous areas of white, while the greens and yellows to the left suggest a view onto a garden. The present work demonstrates how Renoir increasingly sought to reconcile the tenets of Impressionism with the structure and permanence of the classical tradition. The sophisticated light effects neither dissolve the contour of the objects nor mitigate their mass. Indeed the apples and lemon seem to gain in substance and clarity from the light filtering across the canvas.
Discussing Renoir’s pictorial dialogue with Chardin, Charles Sterling’s statement of Renoir’s achievement in still-life could well describe the present painting: ‘Nurtured on the traditions of eighteenth-century French painting, Renoir…carried on the serene simplicity of Chardin. Pale
shadows, light as a breath of air, faintly ripple across the perishable jewel of a ripe fruit. Renoir reconciles extreme discretion with extreme richness, and his full-bodied density is made up, it would seem, of coloured air. This is a lyrical idiom hitherto unknown in still life, even in those of Chardin. Between these objects and us there floats a luminous haze through which we distinguish them, tenderly united in a subdued shimmer of light’ (C Sterling, Still life in painting from Antiquity to the Present Time, Paris 1959, p.100).