Renoir’s Dance: story of passion

I still remember my first slow dance with a girl I fancied at the time when instead of proper chemistry I was researching the effect of having crystals of Iodine dissolved in Ammonia solution (a bang occurs when the resulting residue dries up, loud enough to make the teacher beat the school’s record in vertical jump). This, and the day I got drunk for the first time are the three things I remember from my school days.

Dancing was erotic then, even more so than making loud bangs. It was all about courting, flirtation, passion, and much jealousy for the less fortunate wall-propping boys.  I am not sure it holds true for contemporary dance, but even a twerking fan can try to imagine what it is to waltz with a partner who is not bobbing up and down like a sledge-hammer.

Dance is a single reason to come to National Gallery’s Inventing Impressionism show twice. I mean the three Dance paintings by Renoir. Rarely shown together since they were sold by Paul Durand-Ruel, a famous dealer who commercialised the Impressionists, they offer an ironic insight into the passions swirling on the dance floor.

Art historians seem to know everything about these paintings: time, location, model names, and brands of clothes they wear, but I feel the painter’s idea has been eluding them or they didn’t feel the general public should be made aware of it. Let’s remedy this, for it is best seen when the three paintings are together.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir made two paintings of dance in the country and one ballroom version in 1883.

Look at them and note the major difference between the two types of dance:

Dance at Bougival, 1883(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) Dance in the Country and Dance in the City (Paris, Muse´e d’Orsay, Photographs © Re´union des Muse´es Nationaux / Art Resource, NY) Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841–1919)

Outdoor dancing is much wilder than its ballroom counterpart. In the country, men don’t have to put on gloves, women can wear loosely fitted ones; the movement is dynamic, the plants, trees, and feelings are real. The ballroom type, with its somber white columns, potted plants, controlled steps, and orchestrated music, pales in comparison. That is, at first glance. Because at second glance, we can notice that the two country scenes are very different to each other, and there is a lot of passion in the ballroom scene too.

Let’s get closer to the couple in the middle, who seem to have left their table in a hurry to join the merry-making on the dance floor.

Dance 1 Reduced size

The man has put the hand of his lady in a firm grip, but she holds on to her fan as if it were a symbol of her independence. She didn’t take off her gloves: it is another barrier between her and her partner. The man is obviously quite taken by passion: he dropped his hat, but doesn’t notice it, his lips are almost touching the cheek of the girl, his eyes are cast down towards her face.

While she maintains her barrier at the top half, she’s quite flirtatious at the bottom: look at how her dress is painted against his leg. First, there is no separation between her dress and his suit, it looks like an Yin Yang symbol. Second, it’s the tiny details that you can only see up close and personal.


The blue reflection on the dress is very weak, implying there is no distance between them. The vertical border of the dress is also slightly shaded, because it is pressed against his leg. And yet, her hand rests on the man’s shoulder without embracing him, and her eyes flick back to the observer (and the artist).


She’s aware she’s being watched, and she flirts with her partner and the observer.

I can understand Renoir who used his future wife as the model here, and, perhaps, could not show her infatuated with one of his best friends, but I also understand her: she’s obviously playing with the man she’s dancing with, and with the man observing the scene, and enjoying every moment of it.

Now let’s spy on the left couple. Their dance is much more dramatic. When thinking about it, we need to remember that Renoir painted the background of his portraits to express his view of the portrayed person’s character. Here, the background is not just merrymaking and chatting. There are more men than women in it, and girls appear somewhat “hunted” by men.


Compare the way this man is dressed to the previous gentleman. He is very casual. Of course, dancing at a country cafe didn’t require a formal suit, but a white shirt and black shoes were still a must. Our guy breaks all the rules. And there’s something wild about him that screams he can, or at least he thinks he can behave like a predator.

Look at the way he holds her. In the previous dance, we had “separation” at the top and union at the bottom. Here, the position is different.

At the top, there’s a lot of passion: his neck is craned towards her, and even though she averts her head, perhaps, to avoid his forced kiss, her hand is thrown over his neck.

Dance at Bougival, 1883  Pierre Auguste Renoir, French, 1841 - 1919  Oil on canvas, 71 5/8 x 38 5/8 inches (181.8 x 98.1 cm)  *Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Picture Fund, 37.375  *Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston  25missing

At the bottom it is the opposite: they are apart.

We don’t have a thin “blue” line separating the girl from her partner. Instead, we have a blue blur that signals motion, clear lines that mean separation, and blue reflections indicating distance:

blue blur

So, what’s going on in this painting? The girl does not seem to offer much resistance, otherwise she wouldn’t be embracing the man, yet she somehow doesn’t what “it” to happen here and now. What is she afraid of?

Perhaps, the clue is in the painting itself. We just need to follow the girl’s line of sight.

Dance-line of sight

She looks at the flower on the floor. A cut, used, and thrown away flower, the colour of the man’s suit. Does the man strike you as an experienced ladies’ man  who had seduced and abandoned a legion of poor souls before his eye fell on this beautiful girl? Even if he does not seem the kind to you, the girl still doubts the prudence of offering him her lips. She wants to, desires to throw herself into his embrace, but… remember the flower, sweetheart, remember the flower, she keeps telling herself.

A friend of mine, having studied the painting, noticed a ring on her ring finger. Is she engaged? If yes, then it is unlikely she is engaged to the man she is dancing with: he doesn’t have a matching ring.

And now, we sail on to the ballroom, that initially seemed so lacking in passion against these country-cafe diversions.download2

How do they feel?

Unlike in the country dance paintings, we don’t see much of the man. But what we can see is quite revealing.


And what about the girl?

Perhaps, Renoir left us clues about her character too?

The simplest clue is this:

download (2) - копияHave you ever played with making shadows on the wall with your hand?

Look at the space between her thumb and index finger and then look at her slightly parted lips.

She and the man are bound by the rules and norms, but she dreams of a kiss, and that dream makes her blush.

If we look at her dress, which is cut by the frame, so that we don’t know where it ends or originates from, it looks a metaphor for passionate innocence that climbed up the man like a snow avalanche, just going upwards.

Remember, all the three “dances” are life-size: Renoir invites you to become a participant, and build your own plot from the glimpse of a story he painted in each of the them.

Renoir's Dancers, and an admirer
Сlick on the photograph to get to its source

And if you are not satisfied with life-size, there is a US artist who offers you an alternative:

Renoir - Dance at Bougival-L

It’s fun, I agree, but… it’s not good for artists. Artists who can’t make a masterpiece of their own love to exploit masterpieces of the past by turning them into hollow pop-art exhibits. It is an easy path to commercial success, but it is often a one-way road: there’s no turning back to creating your own masterpiece.

I am coming back to the show to see the three of them together, and then back again once more. It’s almost as good as mixing Iodine with Ammonia in the school lab and watching your classmates catapult themselves in the air.


  1. Art, your blog and another by a fellow named Arran Henderson (he writes about arts and culture related to Ireland, check him out) are the places where I go on the web-o-sphere to learn something. What a terrific terrific post.

          1. And I have found you in return… ArtMoscow. What a wonderful blog you have here. I really enjoyed your thoughtful analysis above, of the Renoir dance paintings. Highly interesting, and exactly the sort of intelligent, nuanced but accessible information about the Arts in general (and history and architecture) I think is so important, and which I try to do myself here. Very pleased to make your acquaintance.
            about – that’s another blog I run, where I let people know about the little art/ architecture/ history walking tours i do, here in Dublin. My more general or personal content, opinions etc.. goes on Although, naturally, there is some overlap between the two sites/blogs.
            Anyway, I am delighted to find you, and your super blog.
            my compliments, and very best regards – Arran.

            1. Thank you, Arran – it is a real pleasure to connect to like-minded people across the globe! I’ve never been to Ireland, but I often come to London, and I am sure that a trip to Dublin is bound to get organised quite soon. I’d love to sign up on a tour then! ) And, if you ever decide to come to Moscow, I’d be happy to take you around too. I am sure there’s much to read between both of us in the meantime – warm regards – Kyrill

  2. What I wonder, in the first two pictures, is the straw hat that seems to be the trait d’union between the two works. It also seems that Renoir has used the same models, both male and female, for these two works. In the first scene, the man reminds me of the portrait of Renoir.
    (I beg your pardon for my bad english).

    1. The male model is the same in all the three paintings, a friend of Renoir, and the female model is the same in the first and the last (in my triptych setting), Suzanne Valadon. Renoir’s future wife modeled for the painting in the middle )

  3. Renoir is one of my favourite artists. He manages to capture the flesh tones to perfection. I’ve seen those particular paintings many times and found your interpretation interesting. I always thought the formal dance was probably his legal wife in all propriety. The country dance, the woman’s mouth is open and she is openly flirtatious. He’s already lost his hat, it’s all down hill from there. The Dance at Bougivai, the woman is obviously tempted but, as you suggested, she is having second thoughts.

    1. The really funny thing is that the woman in the dance in the city and the girl who is having second thoughts is the same woman: Suzanne Valadon, an artist herself! )

  4. Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was a world renown French Impressionist painter who excelled in transferring beauty and feminine sensuality to the canvas. His portraits and real life scenes are filled with sparkling color and light. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I have to say that even though I agree about the passion shown in the first two paintings, I disagree about the third one.In the third ballroom painting,the man seems hidden but the little we can see especially of his eyebrows, it seems that he’s looking downwards taking in the intensity of the moment. But the girl doesn’t quite seem to share the moment.Everything about her-the lips,the direction of her eyes, all of it-seem to indicate that m maybe her thoughts are not there, with her partner but somewhere else.

    1. OK, I could agree with your interpretation, but for a one detail. The girl appears blushing, and rouge was not used at the time, quite the opposite: a lady would put dangerous whitening substances on her face to look pale. If there are no feelings between them (if we assume she thinks of someone else while dancing with the man), then her blushing goes unexplained.

      But – whatever I think – I am happy you built your own story! I truly am!

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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