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Renoir at the Theatre - The Courtauld Gallery

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

IN CELEBRATION of the Courtauld Institute of Art’s 75th anniversary, an exhibition entitled Renoir at the Theatre: Looking at ‘La Loge’ will be on display from February 21 to May 25, 2008.

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.

Renoir at the Theatre unites La Loge for the first time with the artist’s other treatments of the subject and loge paintings 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 loges of 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 will be 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.

Renoir at the Theatre will be the first exhibition to focus on this group of works. It will also display a number of important loge paintings 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’ 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.

Tickets (included in admission to permanent collection): adult – £5; concessions – £4; free – under 18s, full-time UK students and unwaged (at all times); and on Mondays (10am – 2pm).

Times: Daily – from 10am to 6pm (last admission at 5.30pm).

The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 0RN.