The Braid: one of the Sidney and Jenny Brown Collection’s most popular artworks, admired by a great number of visitors to the Langmatt and, for many years, sent all over the world as a postcard. It is frequently the subject of loan requests by major world museums. Intricate foliage surrounds the head of a female person like a widely extending, fashionably up-to-the-minute hat; she is pensively braiding her hair and gazing vaguely into the foreground, removed from reality for a few moments.
Her facial features are naturalistically developed to such an extent that they take on an almost photorealistic precision. The Braid demonstrates that the Impressionists could paint in a technically proficient manner, even if they did not usually choose to do so. Realistic exactitude and the mirroring of nature held no interest for them. This, after all, was the pattern of the previous artistic style of realism, from which they wished to distance themselves. What fascinated them was the movement of light, changeability in nature, the luminosity of color. At the time when this picture was created (that is, between 1883 and 1887), Renoir was embroiled in a deep artistic crisis. He had embarked on Impressionism with great enthusiasm at a very early stage, significantly influencing this new painting style. Sidney and Jenny Brown’s collection contains a number of impressive examples dating from the 1870s, e. g., The Boat (circa 1878) or Portrait of Paul Meunier (circa 1877). In these works, the leaves of forests or the skin of a boy are immersed in an enchanting shimmer. Now, however, everything was suddenly different; overshadowing doubts regarding Impressionism were having a crippling effect on his work. Renoir faced an economic as well as an artistic crisis. He began to recall classicist painting, in particular the works of Ingres: cool, knife-sharp portraits from the early nineteenth century. Renoir overcame this crisis in his painting career by examining the traditions of painting in order to redevelop his own perspective, and was successful in that, shortly afterwards, he made a confident return to the “soft focus” of Impressionism.
However, there is more to the picture’s background than this process of looking back and self-redefining. There is also the surprising (from today’s perspective) freedom it shows in deviating from the original subject; in fact, its apparent pleasure in the genesis of an ideal, fictional figure through “sampling.” To use a term from our own era, the portrait is nothing other than a loving “fake”: the model —the artist Susanne Valadon — was blond and blueeyed, with a fair complexion. She modeled in the studio, rather than in a natural setting. However, Renoir’s vision was different: he promptly transformed her into the “Italian” woman he required, giving her dark hair, skin, and eyes. There may also have been certain commercial considerations: at the time, realistic representations were in tune with the tastes of the audience, and promised better sales than the Impressionist artworks so misunderstood by the era.