Within the circle of Impressionists that included Monet, Pissarro and Sisley, Renoir was known as the “painter of women" because of his subtle explorations, in his portraits and nudes, of female sensuality and joie de vivre. In 1881, Renoir, then in the throes of a moral and artistic crisis, left France for Italy with his wife. After spending some time in Venice, they went on to Florence and Rome, where Renoir admired the classical frescoes of Raphael. His study of the ancient masters changed his vision and interpretation of Impressionism and steered him toward a more classical period that favoured drawing.
The artist extended his stay in Italy, visiting Naples, Sorrento and Capri. In a letter sent from Naples to the banker and art patron Paul Bérard, Renoir said he was having the young women staying at his inn pose for him. He compared the oldest of them to the Saint Catherine of Leonardo, taking her as the model for the plain beauty of this Head of a Neapolitan Girl. This canvas, which the Montreal collector William Van Horne acquired from the Parisian gallery owner and art dealer Vollard, appears to be a preliminary study for larger paintings, such as Renoir’s Woman Dancing in an Italian Costume (private collection) and his Mother and Child in the collection of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.