First Impressions

A rediscovered trove of prints reveals a master's unknown side.

After all the blockbuster exhibitions and headline-grabbing auction prices, Pierre-Auguste Renoir's oeuvre would seem to be an open book. His voluptuous female nudes, charming landscapes, and scenes of Parisians at leisure, all rendered in his signature powdery brushstrokes and sensual palette, are familiar to any high school kid. But a chapter was missing.

The untold story begins with Ambroise Vollard, the enterprising dealer who showed some of the biggest names in the Paris art world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Cézanne, Degas, Matisse, Picasso, and Renoir. He was particularly influential in fomenting the wave of experimental printmaking that swept the city during the period. Vollard met Renoir around 1895 and over the next decade and a half, in addition to serving as one of his dealers, he commissioned numerous prints from the artist.

With Vollard's encouragement, Renoir made etchings, drypoints, lithographs, and a type of transfer print called a counterproof. Widely used in the 18th century, the counterproof allowed artists to make copies of chalk and pastel drawings. By placing a damp sheet of paper over a drawing and running it through a press, the artist could create a mirror image, leaving the original intact. Most counterproofs are unique impressions, although a second, usually paler, example was occasionally pulled from the same drawing.

While many of Renoir's lithos and etchings were published, his counterproofs lay tucked away in Vollard's archives. When Vollard died in 1939, much of his estate was acquired by the dealer Henri Petiet, a gentleman connoisseur who collected more than he sold. Petiet put the whole lot in storage and the counterproofs remained hidden for another five decades.

More than a century after their creation, 34 of these works are being unveiled in "Renoir: The Pastel Counterproofs" at the Adelson Galleries in New York, November 1 to December 23. The show was organized by Marc Rosen, a private New York dealer who befriended Petiet in the seventies. Over the years he was granted tantalizing glimpses of Petiet's collection. "He would show you the occasional thing," Rosen recounts, "once he knew you wouldn't blab."

It wasn't until after Petiet's death, in 1980, that the extent of his holdings became clear. Rosen and Adelson Galleries have already collaborated on several exhibitions of Petiet material, including one last fall devoted to the counterproofs of Mary Cassatt. While that show was a revelation, Cassatt's counterproofs weren't unknown. In the case of Renoir's, there was almost no public record at all.

For die-hard Renoir fans, these works are a welcome addition to the canon. Retaining the spare, expressive strokes and artfully smudged shadings of fresh color that bring Renoir's pastels to life, they truly capture the artist's hand.

Made between 1895 and 1910, the counterproofs are all undated. Renoir pulled some from works in progress, and others he created from studies related to earlier works, such as the famous Au Moulin de la Galette (which sold at Sotheby's in 1990 for $78 million). Certain ones have a more finished look than others: In Deux études de jeune fille au chapeau ($90,000), a girl in a bonnet is rendered in two poses, floating against considerable white space, while Portrait de jeune femme ($350,000) is elegantly detailed throughout, right down to the subject's pretty face and rakishly cocked hat.

Renoir's counterproofs are far less pricey than his pastels and sell for a small fraction of the sums his paintings command. Still, unfamiliarity with counterproofs might give some collectors pause, and others may hesitate to invest in an untested segment of the Renoir market. Gallery owner Warren Adelson believes such concerns won't last. "Anyone interested in Renoir should come and have a look," he says. "The counterproofs possess much of the artistic clout of his pastels and they have a thrilling freshness rarely seen in any hundred-year-old work of art. Viewers will feel like it's 1895 all over again."

Adelson Galleries, 25 E. 77th St., New York; 212-439-6800; www.adelsongalleries.com.