“… the kind of exhibition that The Courtauld Gallery does to perfection. It takes an Impressionist masterpiece from its own incomparable collections and gives it context.”
The Daily Telegraph
“Another of those close-focus shows this gallery does so well. It brings together Renoir’s La Loge with other treatments by him and contemporaries of people in theatre boxes. Recommended.”
Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La Loge (The Theatre Box), 1874, is a masterpiece of Impressionist painting and one of the most famous works in the Courtauld Gallery’s collection. The exhibition unites this exceptional picture with Renoir’s other paintings of elegant Parisians on display in their loges.
It also includes other depictions of the theatre box by his Impressionist contemporaries, with important works by Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas and others borrowed from international collections. Their shared interest in the spectacle of modern society at the theatre is further explored through a rich array of printed material such as contemporary fashion magazines and caricatures.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La Loge (The Theatre Box), 1874, is one of the masterpieces of Impressionism and a major highlight of The Courtauld Gallery’s collection. Its depiction of an elegant couple on display in a loge, or box at the theatre, epitomises the Impressionists’ interest in the spectacle of modern life. In celebration of The Courtauld Institute of Art’s 75th anniversary the exhibition Renoir at the Theatre: Looking at ‘La Loge’, on view from 21 February to 25 May 2008, unites La Loge for the first time with Renoir’s other treatments of the subject and logepaintings by contemporaries, including Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas. Concentrating on the early years of Impressionism during the 1870s, the exhibition explores how these artists used the loge to capture the excitement and changing nature of fashionable Parisian society.
La Loge was Renoir’s principal exhibit in the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1874. The complexity of its subject matter and its virtuoso technique helped to establish the artist’s reputation as one of the leaders of this radical new movement in French art. Renoir’s brother Edmond and Nini Lopez, a model from Montmartre known as ‘Fish-face’, posed for this ambitious composition. At the heart of the painting is the complex play of gazes enacted by these two figures seated in a theatre box. The elegantly dressed woman lowers her opera glasses, revealing herself to admirers in the theatre, whilst her male companion trains his gaze elsewhere in the audience. In turning away from the performance, Renoir focused instead upon the theatre as a social stage where status and relationships were on public display.
Theatre in Paris was a rapidly expanding industry during the 19th century, dominating the cultural life of the city. At the time of La Loge it was estimated that over 200,000 theatre tickets were sold every week in Paris. Theatres ranged from the popular variety act venues to the fashionable elegance of the great opera houses. The burgeoning wealth of the middle classes meant that the logesof the premier theatres were no longer the preserve of high society. From the 1830s onwards celebrated caricaturists such as Honoré Daumier (1808-79) and Paul Gavarni (1804-66) seized upon the theatre box as a rich theme for social satire. By the 1870s leering men with over-sized opera glasses, middle-aged women struggling to maintain their appeal, fathers parading their elegant daughters, and gauche visitors from the provinces had emerged as stock types in weekly magazines such as Le Petit Journal pour Rire. The interest in the theatre, and particularly the loge as a space for social display, was also harnessed by the booming fashion industry which catered to the aspirational and newly wealthy middle class. Lavishly produced journals such as La Mode Illustrée included fine hand-coloured engravings showing the latest fashions modelled by elegant ladies in theatre boxes . A rich selection of this little-known graphic material from contemporary Parisian journals is also on display in the exhibition.
As the first artist to make the theatre box a subject for modern painting, Renoir drew on this popular visual culture, which would also have shaped the context in which his paintings were viewed. At the time of the first Impressionist exhibition Renoir had been particularly concerned with the loge and, in addition to the Courtauld picture, produced two smaller canvases, both of which will be displayed in the exhibition. Renoir returned to the theme in two later canvases. At the Theatre, 1876-7, (National Gallery, London) takes an oblique view of a theatre box, setting a young woman and her companion off against the blurred mass of the audience. At the Concert, 1880, (The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown) is one of Renoir’s most monumental treatments of the subject. This work started as a portrait of the family of Monsieur Turquet, the under-secretary of state for the fine arts, posed in their opulent theatre box. Renoir subsequently altered the composition, painting out his male patron who was originally shown in the background, and transforming the image into a fashionable but anonymous genre scene.
A major highlight of the exhibition is a small version of the Courtauld Gallery’s La Loge which was recently sold at auction in London and was one of the sensations of the sale, doubling its pre-auction estimate. Renoir seems to have painted it in 1874, perhaps in response to the critical success of the larger picture at exhibition, but this is the first time the two have been exhibited together.
Renoir at the Theatre will be the first exhibition to focus on this group of works. It will also display a number of important logepaintings by Renoir’s Impressionist contemporaries to explore alternative ways in which this subject was approached. Two major paintings by Mary Cassatt present contrasting views of women in their theatre boxes. Woman with a Pearl Necklace, 1879, (Philadelphia Museum of Art) shows a beautifully dressed woman in the sparkling interior of a theatre box as the passive recipient of admiring gazes . In the Loge,1878, is a very different representation where a soberly attired woman assertively surveys the theatre through her opera glasses as an active participant in the play of gazes that surrounds her . In Degas’s treatments of the subject the artist explores different ‘snapshot’ viewpoints of the loge, as if capturing a fleeting glance. This is epitomised by his ambitious pastel La Loge, 1880 (private collection), in which the viewer is placed in the theatre stalls looking up at the head of a lone woman who emerges from the gilded surround of a loge, her pale face caught momentarily in a pool of light.
Renoir’s La Loge received enthusiastic reviews when it was first exhibited in Paris in 1874 and later that year it travelled to London for an exhibition organised by his dealer Durand-Ruel, making it one of the first major Impressionist paintings to be shown in this country. However, the painting did not sell at either exhibition and was bought inexpensively the following year by the minor dealer ‘Père’ Martin for 425 francs, providing Renoir with much needed funds to pay the rent. When Samuel Courtauld purchased it in 1925 the status of the painting had risen considerably along with the price which was now £22,600 and one of Courtauld’s most expensive acquisitions. Today La Loge is celebrated as one of the most important paintings of the Impressionist movement. This exhibition will cast new light upon Renoir’s masterpiece and the spectacle of the Parisian theatre which it captures.
La Loge, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, is one of most celebrated masterpieces of The Courtauld collection and one of the most important works of the Impressionist movement. Renoir at the Theatre: Looking at ‘La Loge’, places this painting at the heart of the exhibition to explore the making and meanings of this extraordinary work.
Theatre in Paris was a rapidly expanding industry during the 19th century, dominating the cultural life of the city. The theatre was an important place to see and to be seen. Wealth was flaunted; fashions paraded; allegiances made; and engagements announced. In turning away from the performance, Renoir focused instead upon the theatre as a social stage where status and relationships were on public display.
At the heart of the painting is a complex play of gazes enacted by the two figures seated in the theatre box. An elegantly dressed woman lowers her opera glasses, revealing herself to her admirers in the theatre, whilst her male companion trains his gaze elsewhere in the audience.
The gaze played an important theme in the work of caricaturists, who seized upon the audience as a rich theme for social satire. Depictions of men with over-sized opera glasses, middle-aged women struggling to maintain their appeal, fathers parading their elegant daughters, and gauche visitors from the provinces, all alluded to the fascination with the audience as a stage for social performance.
For the sitters of La Loge, Renoir chose his brother Edmund and Nini Lopez, a model from Montmartre known as ‘Fish-Face’.
Edmund wears formal attire, consisting of a gilet, white shirt, starched cravat, black trousers and gold cufflinks, and is typical of an evening dress worn for the elite theatres. The sobriety of male dress eschewed class divisions, celebrating the growing social and political legitimacy of the middle classes. It also served to draw attention to the exuberant styles of their female companions.
Nini models a fashionable tenue de premiere, which was a dress to be worn for the opening night of a performance. This demi-toilette was known as the polonaise and consisted of an over-gown, which was looped up at the sides and back to create softly draped layers of fabric and is typical of the fashionable revival of eighteenth century styles.
Fashion was vital to the economy and came to form an icon of French national identity. With the aid of Hassmann’s revolutionary changes to the urban physique, the number of couturiers rocketed and new inventions such as the sewing machine allowed the mass production of more intricate and elaborate forms of dress.
Diamond earrings, a pearl necklace and a gold bracelet were luxury accessories completing the composition. The rose on Nini’s dress draws our eyes towards a fashionably enticing décolletage, which was afforded by new developments in the manufacture of corsetry.
A rose in the sitter’s hair draws attention to a simple, yet elegant, style, though an x-ray of the painting in 1997 suggests that Renoir may have originally painted his model wearing a black rimless hat. Her companion sports a kempt beard, moustache and hair. Its slight wispy manner, however, may denote the qualities of an artisan.
The female subject holds a black fan and laced-edged handkerchief while resting the other hand on the red plush at the front of the theatre box. Bare hands were unacceptable on such formal occasions and etiquette guides would advise the exact shade and material of glove for both men and women. The choice of white silk illustrates artistic awareness of such instruction.
The art of the chic Parisienne
To Renoir, dress was primarily for the pleasures of the eye. The delicate brushstrokes used to depict Nini’s dress, and its sensual tones reminiscent of her rice powdered skin, are at the heart the Renoir’s depiction of a very elusive concept: the art of being ‘chic’. A contemporary critic known as Bertall described ‘chic’ as a ‘bearing, ease of manner, appearance and impromptu elegance…’ It is through the magical alchemy of this great artist that the spirit of fashion, and the lure of the la loge, is captured.
Mr and Mrs Gilbert Lloyd, Nassau, Bahamas
The Doris Pacey Charitable Foundation