Renoir’s L’allée au bois is the first French Impressionist painting to enter a public collection in Northern Ireland and represents an outstandingly important acquisition for the Ulster Museum. It fills an important gap in the collection, and will enable a deeper understanding of the work of the ‘Irish Impressionists’ such as Roderic O’Conor, John Lavery and Paul Henry who travelled to France to study the achievements of Impressionism in the years after 1870.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir was one of the leading figures of Impressionism in Paris during the 1870s and 1880s. Throughout these years Impressionist painters created an entirely new style of painting, using only loose, fragmented brush strokes to evoke the changing colours and myriad qualities of light.
Born in Limoges, Renoir moved to Paris as a child. There he met Claude Monet with whom he developed the ideas and techniques of Impressionism and made painting trips to the forest of Fontainebleau and La Grenouillère, a boating resort on the River Seine not far from Paris. L’allée au bois was painted between 1874 and 1880 in a wood near Paris, although the precise location is unknown. The small light-filled woodland scene is a purely Impressionist work giving the viewer the sense of entering a forest glade where a light breeze gently rustles leaves and grasses in the heat and dappled shade of a summer afternoon.
L’allée au bois was the outstanding work in the collection of Major Victor Cazalet (1896-1943) a member of a distinguished Huguenot family. Cazalet was awarded the MC in France in 1917, and subsequently served on the British Mission in Siberia before going to Oxford. He was elected as MP for Chippenham in 1924. At the outset of the war in 1939, Cazalet re-joined the army and on account of his knowledge of Eastern European languages and personal friendship with General Wladyslaw Sikorski was appointed Liaison Officer to the Free Poles. Among the first to alert parliament to the horrors of Treblinka, he toured the Middle East with Sikorski and was with him on 4 July 1943 when the aircraft they were travelling in crashed off from Gibraltar killing both men. L’allée au bois has been allocated to the Ulster Museum from the estate of Cazalet’s niece, Sheran, Lady Hornby, in memory of her uncle.