Today’s featured work of art was not my original intended offering. That sounds somewhat strange but actually there is logic to my decision. I was researching a painting when I came across today’s work and there seemed, at least in my mind, a good reason to offer you today’s painting before I showcased my original work.
The French word La Loge in the context of a theatre means the theatre box and it has been the subject of a number of paintings. Today I want to look at La Loge by Pierre-Auguste Renoir which he completed in 1874 and now hangs at The Courtauld Gallery in London. Today this work of art by the Impressionist painter is looked upon as one of the most significant works of the Impressionist movement. At the time of this painting it was estimated that over 200,000 theatre tickets were sold every week in Paris. However, going to a Parisian theatre in the nineteenth century was not just about taking in the latest plays by the likes of Victor Hugo or Alexandre Dumas or the less formal vaudeville shows which were also very popular at the time, it was about being seen by other theatregoers. Men would accompany and flaunt their wives or lovers. Proud fathers would show off their daughters and “out-of-towners” would take the opportunity of dressing up and sample the Parisian lifestyle. It was an almost indoor form of promenading, which was the leisurely walking in public places dressed in one’s finery and carried out as a social activity. Attending the theatre was a chance to showcase one’s most expensive clothes and accoutrements as well as parading one’s latest beau. What could be more satisfying than to flaunt one’s wealth or one’s new lover? It was a question of seeing and being seen and going to the theatre dominated the cultural life of the city. As well as seeing actors on the theatre stage the theatregoers were actually quietly performing on their own social stage.
The way Renoir has depicted the scene in the theatre box sums up this attitude. We see a lady and gentleman seated in their box. Take a look at their demeanour. Are they depicted as locked in concentration at what is happening on the stage below? No they are not. The lady stares out at us with her gloved hand holding her opera glasses and resting it on the lavish velvet frontage of the box whilst her other hand clasps a black fan and a white lace handkerchief in her lap. Protocol of the day demanded that ladies must wear gloves on formal occasions.
Her face is now not hidden from view by her opera glasses. She is revealing her face to all who may wish to gaze at her. So how would you describe her? Is there a delicate elegance about her or does she look rather brash. She is without doubt beautiful and has little trepidation about letting people admire her from afar. She wears a lavish dress, one she has probably saved for this very outing. This is her tenue de premiere or opening-night attire. Her costume would often be referred to as a robe à la polonaise or polonaise which was popular in the late eighteenth century and saw a was revival a hundred years later in the 1870’s. It consisted of a fitted overdress which extended into long panels over an underskirt. The magic of Renoir’s painting is that from a far one can see the three dimensional form of the dress with all its folds and yet up close it was just a series of brushstrokes. It is almost magical the way the artist has painted this work.
The elegant dress oozes a sense of wealth but that is not the only thing which advertises the financial situation of the couple. The style of the dress also oozes the ladies sensuality. Note the position of the rose which immediately draws our eyes to the décolletage which emphasizes her cleavage. The low-cut neckline was a popular feature of evening gowns of that era. Another rose placed in her hair once again draws our eyes to her simple but elegant coiffure.
Look at her neck and the pearl necklace she is wearing. Also we can just make out a pair of diamond earrings dangling from her ears and if we look at the hand which holds her opera glasses we note a gold bracelet around her slender wrist. The wealth is there for us to see but more importantly it is there for the other theatregoers to note.
This is a summation of the “seen and being seen” philosophy. She is wanting to be seen in all her finery whilst he is concentrating on seeing. Renoir used one of his regular models, Nini Lopez, as the model for the lady.
The sitter for her male companion in the theatre box was Edmund Renoir, the brother of the artist. He, like the lady, is dressed elegantly in his formal clothes. Renoir has depicted him wearing a white shirt with a starched cravat, black trousers and gold cufflinks. His attire, which is typical of that of the wealthy male theatregoer also exudes a sense of affluence but its plainness and subdued colour allows the more colourful female to be the centre of attention.
The aspect of this painting which we cannot be sure about and I will leave you to decide is whether we are seeing a husband and wife out for an evening at the theatre or are we looking a wealthy man accompanied by an elegantly dressed courtesan. Can we deduce the truth from looking at the painting but beware of falling into the trap of being too judgemental !!!
Renoir exhibited this painting in the First Impressionist Exhibition which was held in the former studio of the photographer Nadar at 35 boulevard des Capucines in Paris on April 15, 1874. This work, which gives us an insight into Parisian life in the late nineteenth century, is now hailed as a masterpiece of art and one of the most significant works of the Impressionist movement. At the time it was exhibited it helped establish the reputation of Renoir. The painting gives us an insight into life in the French capital during the late nineteenth century.