Richard Edward Miller's sumptuous images of young women in a studio interior are celebrated as some of the finest achievements of American Impressionism. The present painting, Reclining Nude, is an example of these paintings as an exquisitely sensual work and a mastery of rich textures and beautiful light. To look at Reclining Nude is to understand why Miller's work was immediately considered an achievement.
Miller is most often associated with the Giverny Group, a cluster of ambitious painters living in France in the early 20th century, who sought inspiration and kinship in the small town near Paris. Although all of the artists in the small town of Giverny knew each other, or were at least aware of each other, Miller's work is quite distinct from that of his contemporaries. Critics and historians have noted Miller's unique palette for "being 'in a rather lower tone of color,' for which he was no doubt deemed 'the Whistler of the quartet'--it prompted [artist Guy] Pène du Bois to say of it, 'soft and yet brilliant, delicate and yet with a semblance of radicalism a lesson in compromise--a delightful lesson.' The 'compromise' referred to is obviously Miller's mixing academic and Impressionist painting modes. Miller blends them harmoniously in the creation of a decorative, dreamlike atmosphere. He covered the canvas with small dabs, broad strokes, scraped patches, dry swags and floating flecks of color, many independent of literal description." (M.L. Kane, A Bright Oasis: The Paintings of Richard E. Miller, New York, 1997, p. 33)
Reclining Nude is a masterpiece of the type of Impressionist paintings created in Giverny in the early 20th century. In this work, Miller has faithfully incorporated every hallmark of the style. Miller typically chose a perspective in his studio from which he could not only paint his model, but also feature the sunny outdoors. In Reclining Nude, Miller's beautiful young model lies on a divan with her head thrown back and red hair cascading down. She is surrounded by beautiful diaphanous fabrics that reflect the many colors in the room. A sheer sheet is spread underneath her and wrapped around her legs as transparent curtains billow over the airy windows. Even the parasol that sits by her is made of a gauzy fabric.
The female nude was one of Richard Miller's preferred subjects, beginning in the mid-1890s when he won prizes for his work in life class at the Saint Louis School of Fine Arts, until the last years of his career in Provincetown in the early 1940s. Study of the nude was at the core of the academic training Miller received first in his native St. Louis and later at the Académie Julian in Paris, where he enrolled for a year beginning in 1899. Miller's early Parisian nudes were soft, tenebrous figures, bathed in a golden light. Folds of gauzy fabric, gleaming copper vessels and delicate oriental ceramics became familiar props in these sensual compositions, showcasing Miller's skill as a still-life painter as well as a figure painter.
Miller did not exhibit his nudes widely. His experience in Chicago in 1914, when his Nude, exhibited at the Art Institute and recipient of the Potter Palmer Prize, was sanctioned by the city's Police Department and Postmaster, no doubt had a dampening effect. Yet his nudes did slowly enter public collections, such as the Des Moines Association of Fine Arts in 1917 and the Rhode Island School of Design in 1920. Miller returned to the subject actively from the mid-1930s on, when he was financially secure enough to paint what he wanted. By then the genre had been enjoying a revival among American artists who turned to the traditional subject in a modern, formalist manner. Miller, who had long been interested in the formal qualities of painting created some of his most innovative work during this period.
Reclining Nude is a brilliant example of Miller's celebrated Giverny style. In contrast to the opalescent, smooth rendering of the young woman, the surrounding studio is painted in vivid color in a tapestry of short, dense Impressionist strokes. Miller is able to combine strong draftsmanship, lively color and bold design to create a picture that captures both Impressionist and modern elements harmoniously. Miller explored the possibilities of expanding his palette and technique. The artist "came into his own as a painter. Combining virtuosic brushwork and highly individual coloring with the subject he painted now almost exclusively--young women, singly or in pairs, in interiors--Miller established a distinctive style...Miller painted a decorative canvas that is as much an interplay of sensuous textures, sinuous contours, and color harmonies, as it is a portrait." (A Bright Oasis: The Paintings of Richard E. Miller, p. 30) Although the painting is representational, the emphasis on shape, line, color and texture reveals Miller's Modernist interest in structure over subject. The painting is composed primarily of rectangular, triangular and circular shapes, whether a bent leg, round table or window pane. Miller crops the composition on the both sides of the composition, creating a sense of intimacy and enclosure for the young nude woman.
In the early 1910s Miller's palette lightened, the result of his plein air painting and growing interest in light and color, and his nudes which had become larger and more monumental in form, began to reflect the subtle pastel colors of their surroundings in a manner reminiscent of Renoir. As Miller turned to stronger and more adventurous colors--green and purple was one favored combination--he intensified the reflection of these colors on his figures' skin, creating a highly artificial, decorative surface while maintaining traditional figuration. Miller's daring use of color in Reclining Nude is immediately discernible. The bright greens, pinks and yellows are characteristic colors of many Giverny Group paintings and Miller used it to great effect to provide contrast for the glowing skin and russet hair of the young woman. They are examples of the artist's artistic "license to use the colors in a highly subjective manner dictated by decorative pictorial considerations" (A Bright Oasis: The Paintings of Richard E. Miller, p. 36).
Reclining Nude is a brilliant example of Impressionism that is "not a tardy or punched-up imitation of the original style, but reflects a vigorous post-impressionist interest in surface and design. Instead of exploring reality, the [works are] visions of beauty based as much on the means and method of creation as on subject." (A Bright Oasis, The Paintings of Richard E. Miller, p. 33) Reclining Nude is a truly sensuous painting--a rich mix of color, textures, and light--deserving of the adjectives "radiant" and "jubilant" that critics bestowed on Miller's Giverny paintings.