Size: 24 x 19 cm
Signed: lower left: Renoir
The first portrait of an American by one of the impressionist painters, this is one of a series of small, informal portraits, mostly of young women of his social acquaintance or friends, produced by Renoir from the late 1870s onwards. It displays the vibrant palette and lightness of touch which are characteristic of his work in this period and has an immediacy that captures the intelligence and character of the sitter, even though Douglas Fitch was just thirteen years of age when he sat for his portrait. Although Renoir’s clientele had now expanded to include several leading figures among the Parisian bourgeoisie, his work was not always appreciated by some of the very people who employed him, even though when these portraits were exhibited at the Paris Salons they had received largely favourable comments from the critics. In the summer of 1881 while staying as a guest of Paul Berard at the Château of Wargemont, near Dieppe, Renoir painted his host’s children, of whom he had already made individual portraits the previous year (Williamstown, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute). This delightful painting was done in the style of a sketch but with a degree of finish that may be compared directly with the portrait of Douglas Fitch. Later that summer and while still at Wargemont, he began his sensitive and elegant portrait of Albert Cahen d’Anvers (Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum) completed on 9 September 1881, a date attested to by an inscription on the painting.
Just a few weeks after completing Cahen’s portrait Renoir left for Italy, probably travelling via Marseille. We do not know how he knew the Fitch family; as a partner in this important American mercantile and banking company, Harold Fitch, the sitter’s father, may have been acquainted with the Cahen d’Anvers bank or perhaps Renoir had an introduction from the American painter Mary Cassatt, with whom he had become acquainted three years earlier. The Fitch’s also knew Sisley, although they seem not to have met him until later. In any case it is likely that this portrait was done either while the artist passed through Marseille or perhaps at the family’s château of Pradines, at Grambois (Vaucluse). As Renoir was already in Italy by late October the Fitch portrait may be dated to late September or early October 1881.
Douglas Fitch’s grandfather, Douglas Woodruff Fitch, for whom the sitter was named, was originally from Connecticut, a partner in the mercantile house of Fitch Brothers and Co, which had offices in New York and New London. In 1820 Douglas W. Fitch and his younger brother William had travelled together to Marseille, to join their elder brother Asa,who had established offices of his commission and banking house there in 1814. In Marseille Douglas met and married an attractive young heiress from the city, Clémence Bec, the daughter of a prominent city merchant. Fitch Brothers were given a virtual monopoly of supplying all provisions and supplies as well as the pay for the American naval squadron based in the Mediterranean, from their base in Marseille. Clémence inherited from her uncle, Joseph Bonnin, the splendid château of Pradines, which Bonnin considerably augmented with the help of the Marseille architects Jean-Marc Vaucher et Charles Bodin , while Clémence and her American husband laid out the ornamental gardens with the assistance of the architect Jacques Couëlle. The château lies between the village of Grambois and the 17th century Hermitage of Saint Pancrace, which is included in the grounds of the estate and in whose chapel (originally 14th century) members of the Bonnin, Bec and Fitch families lie buried. On Douglas’s death, Clémence remarried in 1852 the distinguished poet and Academician, Joseph Autran and together they entertained at Pradines leading figures from the world of arts and letters, including Alexandre Dumas fils, Armand de Pontmartin and Jules Claretie. When Clémence died, in 1882, she requested that her body be buried in the chapel alongside her first husband, Douglas Fitch, while her heart was placed in the tomb of her second, Autran (who died in 1879).
Douglas and Clémence’s son, (William) Harold Fitch, married a cousin, Marguerite Louise Bec; their only son, Douglas Louis (1868-1951) is the subject of this portrait. Harold inherited Pradines from Clémence and regularly entertained American visitors to France there; at his death in 1898 the estate at Pradines passed to Douglas, who married shortly thereafter Marie-Thérèse Gouttenoire de Toury. Douglas later developed an interest in the arts and employed the avant-garde decorator Pierre Girieud (1876-1948), along with Alfred Lombard and Georges Dufrénoy (1870-1943), to paint the interior of the chapel of Saint Pancrace. The painting remained with Fitch’s heirs, who still live at Pradines, until its recent sale.