View from the box: this analysis of a celebrated masterpiece by Renoir depicting a couple at the theatre opens up a major theme in Impressionist art.
ERNST VEGELIN VAN CLAERBERGEN AND BARNABY WRIGHT (EDS)
THE COURTAULD GALLERY IN ASSOCIATION WITH PAUL HOLBERTON PUBLISHING, 20 [pounds sterling]
Pierre-Auguste Renoir's La Loge (The Theatre Box) is a masterpiece of Impressionist painting and one of the most famous works in the Courtauld Gallery, London. Renoir at the Theatre, published in association with a small exhibition at the gallery earlier this year, unites the picture with the artist's other paintings of elegant Parisians in their theatre boxes, and other depictions of the same subject by his Impressionist contemporaries. Their shared interest in the spectacle of modern society on public display is further contextualised by a rich array of period material from the world of caricature and the pages of satirical publications and fashion magazines.
The book's content shuttles between John House's reassessment of Renoir's theatre-box paintings and a consideration of their wider cultural circumstances, with essays on the social spectacle of Paris's theatres by Nancy Ireson and the boom in the Parisian fashion industry by Aileen Ribeiro. The entries on the individual paintings are by House, the Courtauld's expert on French art in the second half of the 19th century, and two of the Gallery's curators, Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen and Barnaby Wright.
Renoir at the Theatre sets La Loge in the context of all six of the artist's canvases of the subject from the early years of the movement. Like the other Impressionists, Renoir made a virtue of depicting the superficial aspect of visual experience, and this attention to surface achieves its perfect expression in the loge paintings, which focus on seeing and being seen. Renoir references the fundamentally voyeuristic inclination underpinning the Impressionist enterprise in La Loge itself by showing the woman's male companion in the act of using binoculars. However, it is in Mary Cassatt's painting At the Francais, A Sketch, in which a woman watches the performance or gazes at the audience through opera glasses while she, in turn, is being inspected by a man with a lorgnette on the same balcony, that this impulse finds its ultimate embodiment.
In her text 'The Lure of the Loge', Ireson explores the growing social importance of the theatre box and its appearance in print and on canvas. By the time of the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, the loge was an established feature of city life. Theatres were steadily increasing in popularity and catered for all kinds of clientele and budget, and Ireson argues that their association with entertainment, escapism and even comedy might have recommended them to young painters such as Renoir. Furthermore, the theatre in general and the loge in particular were important spaces where people could advertise or alternatively obscure their presence and scrutinise the activities of others. 'Impressionist loge canvases', Ireson explains, 'have elaborate facades, which conceal complex associations and meanings', involving class, status, taste and morality. Her discussion of the codes of conduct in loges relating to matters of dress and the employment of opera glasses makes particularly interesting reading.
House's 'Modernity in Microcosm: Renoir's Loges in Context' describes the significance of the theatre box in Renoir's work between 1873 and 1880 and how it offered the artist the opportunity to explore the world of fashionable entertainment, glamorous women's costumes and the loaded interplay between members of the audience. He argues that, taken as a whole, the artist's paintings from the period--the loges included--are a 'sustained attempt to reconcile explicitly modern subjects with the hierarchy of genres that had underpinned traditional pictorial practice since the seventeenth century'. Renoir's theatre-box paintings are clearly images of everyday life. However, writes House, 'La Loge could also be viewed as a modern moral subject picture, Cafe-Concert was initially conceived as a more complex figure subject, and ... Une Loge au theatre seems to have begun life as a figure portrait'.
It is true that today's audiences will probably regard Renoir's female subject in La Loge as 'unproblematically pretty', but House tells us that contemporaneous reviews found her presence ambiguous and potentially troubling. In his individual catalogue entry on the painting, he points out that the canvas attracted extensive commentary, not least because some saw it 'as a representation of a woman of high fashion, some as an iconic figure from the demi-monde'.
Whatever its true meaning, the picture has a mottled, iridescent surface and is dominated by an ornate palette of blacks, whites, reds and yellows. Tender and hedonistic, it reflects Renoir's interest in the art of Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard and looks forward to the armchair comforts of Henri Matisse. Moreover, it reveals an awareness of the possibilities offered by photography, yet it traps time in a way that no photograph can ever hope to match, collapsing together the moment depicted in the painting, the hours in which it came into being, and the subsequent decades when speculation has superseded living memory. A shape-shifting tapestry of luminous colour, shimmering like a mirage, La Loge is one of the supreme paintings of the age.
Ribeiro's essay on 'The Art of Dress: Fashion in Renoir's La Loge' places the depiction of clothing and its evident modernity at the heart of the painting. Renoir's model, Nini Lopez, wears a striped outfit, an embryonic form of a princess gown, which was all the rage in the 1870s. The author confirms that Renoir was most probably inspired by fashion plates, depicting his generic sitters in poetic interpretations of the 'fussily upholstered' dresses of the day. As prime sites for feminine appearance and display, the loge provided the ideal location in which such confections might be worn and put on view. 'For Renoir,' says Ribeiro, 'dress was "created expressly for the delight of painters, for the delight of the eye"; it was an essential part of the representation of beauty, what Stendhal called "the promise of happiness".'
The book underscores the fact that the theatre box provides a stand-in for a window, allowing us to consider its human occupants within an architectural framework. In La Loge, Renoir's centrestage star stares out at the viewer with a calm and steady assurance, and she is depicted with a manifest humanity. It is arguable that Renoir was the purest of the Impressionists, but underneath what C.F. Stuckey once described as his stenographic style of brushwork lurks a painter with an overwhelming belief in the merits of beauty, harmony and order, and a concomitant faith in the subversive value of decoration.
Paul Bonaventura is Senior Research Fellow in Fine Art Studies at the University of Oxford.
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|Title Annotation:||Renoir at the Theatre: Looking at La Loge|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2008|
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