Dance at Bougival captures a dance in progress, with a casually dressed man whirling around a woman in a simple but fashionable pink cotton ensemble.

About the Artwork


ierre-Auguste Renoir was born in 1841 in Limoges, France. His family eventually moved to Paris, and at age thirteen Renoir was apprenticed to a porcelain painter. After working at a porcelain factory for several years and studying at the studios of Gleyre and Signol, Renoir debuted his painting La Esmeralda at the Paris Salon in 1864 and rapidly become one of the leading members of the Impressionism movement (Distel).

In the early 1880s, Renoir achieved financial success when art dealer Durand-Ruel began purchasing his paintings in great numbers. Renoir began traveling and seeing the work of the Old Masters, which inspired him to shift away from impressionism and towards Renaissance-style naturalism. He began concentrating more on sketches and on emphasizing his figures (Wheldon 80-81).

In the spring of 1883, Renoir completed three life-size paintings of dancing couples: Dance at Bougival, Country Dance, (Fig. 1) and City Dance (Fig. 2). The paintings illustrate Renoir’s shift in style; the figures retain the softness and ease of Impressionism, but show an emphasis on form and outline. These paintings have been described as Renoir’s “most perfectly realized figure paintings” (Bailey 194). The three paintings were never conceived as a trio; Dance of Bougival was designed separately from the pair of Country Dance and City Dance. Michael Raeburn writes in his book Renoir (1985):

“They were clearly intended to continue Renoir’s sequence of major subject pictures of urban and suburban recreation. In the event they were virtually his last ambitious explorations of this theme.” (235)

Of these paintings, Dance at Bougival is Renoir’s most romantic. It shows the passion and joy of the central couple. Of the spirit of the painting, author Colin B. Bailey writes in Renoir: Impressionism and Full Length Painting (2012):

“Eyes masked by his boatman’s straw hat, the male dancer expresses his intentions through a body language that is as legible today as it would have been a quarter of a century and a quarter ago…As light as air, the young woman waltzes ‘deliciously abandoned’ in her partner’s arms, his breath upon her cheek.” (194)

Country Dance

Fig. 1 - Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919). Country Dance, 1883. Oil on canvas; 180 x 90 cm (71 × 35 in). Paris: Musée d'Orsay, RF 1979 64. Source: Musée d'Orsay

City Dance

Fig. 2 - Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919). City Dance, 1883. Oil on canvas; 180 × 90 cm (71 × 35 in). Paris: Musée d'Orsay, RF 1978 13. Source: Musée d'Orsay

The female model for both Bougival and City Dance (Fig. 2) was seventeen-year-old Marie-Clementine Valadon, an aspiring artist who eventually rose to fame as a successful French Post-Impressionist painter. The male model was Paul Lhote, a writer and friend of Renoir’s. Lhote had written a short story titled “Mademoiselle Zelia” that was published in La Vie Moderne in November 1883, and Renoir did a pen and ink drawing of Dance at Bougival for the story’s accompanying engraving (Fig. 3).  There are a few modified details: a new bottle of wine on the table in the background; a wineglass replacing a beer glass; the elimination of cigarettes and matches on the dance floor.  Otherwise, it is a replica of Renoir’s original painting.

Dance at Bougival, Country Dance, and City Dance were neither commissioned nor intended for the Paris Salon; rather, they were created as independent works.  Dance at Bougival was shown along with seventy other paintings in Renoir’s solo exhibition in 1883, and its reception was overwhelmingly positive. The May 1883 issue of The Academy stated: “It tells perfectly and with real subtlety of understanding the story of its bohemian scene.” Renoir revisited Dance at Bougival in 1890 in a series of etchings (Fig. 4).  He altered the woman’s dress but kept the scene the same so that the spirit of the painting was preserved (Bailey 200).

Dance at Bougival

Fig. 3 - Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919). Dance at Bougival, 1883. Pen and ink on wove paper; 30.3 x 19.2 cm (11.929 x 7.56 in). Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1986-26-30. The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986. Source: PMA

Dance at Bougival

Fig. 4 - Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919). Dance at Bougival, 1890. Etching on wove paper; 21.9 x 13.3 cm (8 5/8 x 5 1/4 in). Paris: Bibliotheque Nationale de France. Source: Master Works of Fine Art

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841–1919). Dance at Bougival, 1883. Oil on canvas; 181.9 x 98.1 cm (71 5/8 x 38 5/8 in). Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 37.375. Source: MFA

About the Fashion

R enoir’s father was a tailor and his mother a dressmaker, so he grew up with an eye for fashion. The young woman in Dance at Bougival wears a two-piece pink ensemble, probably meant to be cotton. The basque bodice extends past her hips and her waist is accentuated with a gold belt at her waist. The bodice has a open fold-over collar and three-quarter-length sleeves folded up in a cuff below the elbow. The opening of the bodice cuts diagonally across her front and is finished off with a red cotton edging, also seen on the collar, cuff, and hem of the bodice. The fabric of the upper skirt or apron overskirt is pulled towards the back in a bustled drape, with the excess fabric of the skirt coming out under the bustling in a flared shape due to her movement. Her ensemble is finished off with a red bonnet, tied with a bow under her chin, and decorated with purple fruits at the right side. Her partner has a straw hat, light-colored shoes, and a blue suit. He wears his jacket open, allowing a blue sweater and white undershirt to peek through (Bailey 194).

Bougival, the setting of the painting, was a working-class village located about eighteen kilometers outside of Paris. Concerning the fashion of the village, Bailey describes:

“Valadon, in her Sunday best, might be one of Jules Valles’s ‘Republican girls who can dress elegantly for a louis and smell sweetly from a bouquet that costs a sou.'” (205)

His interpretation means that she can dress fashionably for not much money. Her dress is fashionable enough for 1883, though definitely a simplified version of Parisian couture and the crossover bodice front hails from the mid- to late 1870s. The wool and lace dress in figure 5 closely resembles Valdon’s in color and silhouette, but is more elaborately arranged. The dresses are similarly pastel multi-piece ensembles with extended bodices. The skirt in figure 5 also has its fabric pulled to the back, giving a mostly flat front with excess fabric folded and draped at the back to create a slight, low bustle shape. The dresses are both edged with trim, but while the dress in figure 5 has a prominent lace trim, Valdon’s is a more subtle red-scalloped edging detail that may actually just be an edge finish rather than an applied trim. A similar treatment can be seen in an 1885 dress in figure 6. In contrast to the dress in figure 5, the circa-1878 dress in figure 7 has a similar level of simplicity to Valdon’s.

The tintype in figure 8 shows a group of young men and women dressed for a summer promenade in 1883. The women’s dresses are fairly simple and made in one fabric with bodices that extend to the hip. The men are wearing casual suits of one color and brimmed straw hats to complete their looks.

The gown in figure 9 also shares similarities with Valdon’s pink dress. The Duchess wears a two-piece ensemble with the bodice extended to the hip. Her skirt fabric is pulled toward the back, creating a curved apron drape in the front, with excess fabric folded in the back to create the slight bustle shape. Despite some older elements, the fact that Valdon’s ensemble was so similar in silhouette to that of a Duchess means that her pink dress was quite fashionable.

Two piece pink full length wool dress with cream lace trimming

Fig. 5 - Designer unknown. Two piece pink full length wool dress with cream lace trimming, 1883. Wool and lace. Acton ACT: National Museum of Australia, 2005.0005.1337. Source: National Museum of Australia

Summer day dress

Fig. 6 - Designer unknown (American). Summer day dress, ca. 1885. White cotton printed with red circles. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Museum, 1983.001.0121 a-f. Silverman/Rodgers Collection. Source: KSUM

Cotton lawn dress

Fig. 7 - Designer unknown (probably American). Cotton lawn dress, ca. 1878. Printed black and white cotton lawn dress. Charleston Museum. Source: Flickr

Victorian Group of Young Men and Women

Fig. 8 - Artist unknown. Victorian Group of Young Men and Women, 1883. Tintype; 9.21 x 6.19 cm (3 5/8 x 2 7/16 in). Source: Pinterest

The Duke and Duchess of Connaught with their children

Fig. 9 - W. Watson. The Duke and Duchess of Connaught with their children, October 1883. Gelatin silver print; 13.8 x 9.8 cm (5.43 x 3.858 in). Source: Royal Collection Trust

Women in 1883 found clothing inspiration in periodicals and fashion plates. Of spring trends for 1883, “Fashions for May” in Peterson’s Magazine stated:

“Bodices are made in several styles…bodices separate from the over material are in favor. The bodice itself is fastened at the waist only on one side, on the other it is crossed over. The skirt is very long and plain, and edged all around with a rich embroidery. It is looped up on one side over an underskirt of white silk, and is drawn up into a pretty drapery at the back. The bodice and tunic are also edged round with a similar embroidery. In front, the bodice is crossed over, like a shawl, from shoulder to waist, and a gold belt keeps the bodice in place at the waist.” (427)

However, most fashion plates were purposefully ahead of the times, and the style described does not seem to be popular in fashion plates dated to 1883. A fashion illustration from 1880 shows a similar open-collar and belted basque style instead (Fig. 10).

Street Costume

Fig. 10 - Artist unknown. Street Costume, 1880. Print; 23 x 14 cm (9 x 5.25 in). The New York Public Library, b17122166. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. Source: NYPL

Straw bonnet

Fig. 11 - Artist unknown. Straw bonnet, March 1883. Iowa City: University of Iowa, Peterson's Magazine, vol. 83, no. 3 (March 1883): 308. Source: Hathitrust

Woman's Hat

Fig. 12 - Artist unknown (American). Woman's Hat, 1890s. Straw; 17.78 × 15.24 × 26.04 cm (7 × 6 × 10.25 in). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 41.11.16. Gift of Mrs. Margaret Elm Bryner. Source: LACMA

Valdon’s ensemble is finished off with a red straw hat. The June issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine published an article titled “Chitchat on Fashions for June” that discusses hat trends for the season:

“Still, there are a few general features which are accepted fashions.  Straw bonnets are chosen for ordinary wear, and lace or embroidered ones for state occasions…Two sets of ribbons worn on bonnets and are tied on the side to form a bow of many loops, which is now in fashion.  Yellow is seen upon all sides; red and orange is a new French combination, much favored in millinery.  Raspberry reds and dingy purples, known as crushed strawberry, hold their own.” (567-68)

The featured hat in Dance at Bougival perfectly fits this description. It is light red with purpleish fruit decorations on its side.  A dance in a village would be a casual outing, so a red straw bonnet for “ordinary wear” would be very fitting. The hat has two sashes/ribbons on its sides, tied beautifully in a bow under Valdon’s chin. A March 1883 illustration from Peterson’s Magazine displays a similar bonnet shape (Fig. 11). Hats with fruit on them were also popular in this era; see figure 12 for a slightly later straw hat with silk fruit on the brim.

The couple are likely day-trippers from Paris, visiting Bougival as a weekend outing. They clearly had an eye on Paris for fashion trends and adapted them to fit their budgets. The woman’s pink ensemble bears plenty of similarity in its silhouette, color, and accessories to fashion plates, photographs, and surviving garments from 1883.

Diagram of referenced dress features.
Source: Author

Its Legacy

Renoir’s Dance at Bougival became one of his most well-known paintings. It has inspired many artists, including sculptor John Seward Johnson II.  In 1995, Johnson created a twenty-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Dance at Bougival, which he titled A Turn of the Century (Fig. 13).  Johnson wanted to recreate the painting’s scene to give people a chance to interact with it and produce a greater sense of intimacy with the art. The sculpture has been moved around many cities, but as of 2018 it currently resides at 1 PPG Plaza in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

A Turn of the Century

Fig. 13 - John Seward Johnson II (American, 1930-present). A Turn of the Century, 1995. Bronze; 609.6 cm tall (240 in). Pittsburgh: 1 PPG Plaza. Source: Pittsburgh Outdoor Murals and Art