EDGAR DEGAS' LA LOGE
"The impression is strange, but captured with great accuracy." This shrewd remark, which might almost be a summary of Degas' art at mid-career, was first used of the enigmatic La loge when it was unveiled in 1880. Included in the fifth Impressionist exhibition, the pastel clearly intrigued the critic Charles Ephrussi, who also announced that it "shows a profound knowledge of the relationships between tones, producing the most unexpected and curious effects: the wine-coloured drapings of the box and the yellowish light of the stage are projected onto the face of a tiny spectator, who thus finds herself illuminated in violet and yellow" (quoted in R. Berson, The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, San Francisco, 1996, vol.1, p. 278). Other commentators marveled at the originality of La loge, noting Degas' "singular exactitude" (J.-K. Huysmans quoted in ibid p. 291) and suggesting that it was "equally impressive in its conviction and its personality" (A. Silvestre quoted in ibid., p.306).
What exactly was so 'singular' and 'strange' about La loge? Images of theatre audiences had a long pedigree in French art, stretching back to the 18th century and beyond. More recently, they had found popular expression in the caricatures of Honoré Daumier (fig. 1) and a host of his lesser followers, a genre that Degas knew well and actively admired. Several of his colleagues in the Impressionist circle--Cassatt, Renoir and Forain, for example--made their own inventive variants on theatre themes, presenting a number at their early group exhibitions. A celebrated case was Renoir's painting of 1874, also entitled La loge (fig. 2), where the viewer comes face-to-face with a glamorous woman and her escort as they gaze calmly from their box. Both characters hold opera glasses, ostensibly to follow the performance, but here blatantly used by the man to scour the upper tiers for acquaintances and for hints of scandal. Because the viewer seems so close to the couple, there is an implication that Renoir, too, was spying on them with powerful lenses when he conceived this picture. This is people-watching translated into paint, allowing his contemporaries to cross the border between distant fascination and an almost shocking intimacy.
A decade before he created his own La loge, Degas had begun a career-defining exploration of the sight-lines and vantage points of the Paris theatre. In the radical Orchestra of the Opéra of circa 1870 (Musée d'Orsay), he vividly evoked the audience's view from the front stalls as they looked across the heads of the musicians toward the stage beyond. At left, Degas also introduced a glimpse of a minute, stage-side box with a tomato-red edge, containing just one male occupant who watches the ballet a few feet away (he is said to be the composer, Emmanuel Chabrier). This detail is easily missed, however, and except for one or two monotypes from around 1877, Degas largely abandoned the 'peeping-into-the-box' theme. Instead, his performance scenes stressed the drama of vision itself and the more complex sensations of the theatre. Now he might evoke the view over a blurred shoulder in the box beside him, peer down from the highest seats at the brilliant colors beneath, or glance sideways through the chaos of the wings. Advancing from documentation to self-discovery, Degas was in pursuit of the 'strange' as well as the 'exact.'
Probably begun in 1878 or 1879, La loge was different in crucial ways from every theatre image Degas had previously made. Here the artist is situated below his subject, looking steeply and directly up at her, and at virtually nothing else. It is a cool, detached view, as remarkable for the austerity of the composition--cunningly heightened by the emptiness of the box beneath, with its stark, geometric chairbacks--as for the intensity of the face itself. Far from being intrusive, the picture suggests that Degas has only just noticed the woman's spot-lit head or that this 'tiny member of the audience' has suddenly materialized in a pool of light. Several of the artist's admirers in 1880 saw the pastel in this quasi-cinematic way, one of them imagining the moment when 'the profile of a woman emerges above the gilded surround of an avant-scène box' (A. Silvestre quoted in ibid., p. 306) and another fantasizing about 'the hue of her cheeks, warmed by the heat of the auditorium, by blood rising to her cheekbones' (J.-K. Huysmans quoted in ibid., p. 291). Captivated though they were by Degas' mastery of tones and colors, these writers realized--as we do today--that La loge is essentially the painter's view of a solitary human being.
The idea that La loge is a new kind of portrait, focused on a modern individual in her modern surroundings, has deep roots in Degas' career. During the 1860s, when he tried unsuccessfully to launch himself at the Salon, he exhibited a series of progressively more daring works of portraiture that culminated in the remarkable Mme Camus in Red (National Gallery of Art), a smoldering confection of corals and umbers with a curiously theatrical atmosphere. The Impressionist exhibitions that followed enabled Degas to show other novel and unsettling studies of his peers in their characteristic settings, often leaving their identities unspecified in the catalogue. Around 1876, the pace of this initiative quickened. In an essay published that year entitled The New Painting, his close friend, Edmond Duranty, encapsulated many of Degas' own ideas on the subject and urged artists to tackle 'the special characteristics of the modern individual--in his clothing, in social situations.' Duranty cautioned his colleagues 'Sometimes our viewpoint is very high, sometimes very low,' and reminded them to situate their portraits within the décor of the age: 'a person never appears against neutral or vague backgrounds', he insisted (E. Duranty quoted in C. Moffett, The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, San Francisco, 1986, pp. 44-45).
La loge emerged directly from this new aesthetic, exploiting pastel to suggest the hallucinatory crispness of the sitter's face set among the hazier textures of velvet, stucco and gilt. Early in 1879, Degas was clearly eager to display his latest portraits, using a sketchbook page to compile a list of two dozen pictures intended for the fourth Impressionist exhibition (T. Reff, The Notebooks of Edgar Degas, Oxford, 1976, vol. 1, p. 137). Almost half had the word 'portrait' in their titles, ranging over male and female subjects, innovative pictorial structures and experimental techniques. One of them, for example, was made in pastel and distemper on canvas, showing Duranty himself slumped at his book-heaped desk in the kind of pose we now associate with a snapshot. This was also the year when Degas acted as mentor to Mary Cassatt, using another page of the same sketchbook to itemize her submissions for the forthcoming show. In the event, Cassatt made her debut with eleven ambitious pictures, among them four that depicted friends and family in their theatre boxes. It was a vintage year for the contemporary portrait.
A curious detail of this story that directly concerns La loge has largely been overlooked. In his 1879 list of pictures, Degas included the title Portrait dans une baignoire à l'opéra, a work whose identity remains unclear. This may well have been La loge under a slightly different name, possibly withdrawn at the last minute because it was unfinished or, conceivably, as too obvious a competitor for the young Cassatt's precocious entries. As we have seen, Degas did eventually include La loge in the Impressionist exhibition of the following year, now recorded in the catalogue as Etude de loge au théâtre. The double signature on the work, not uncommon in Degas' oeuvre, but usually indicating a slight revision in the composition, is perhaps consistent with this change of title. Still left unexplained, however, were certain details of the picture and its teasing subject. Where was this theatre box located, with its exuberant sculpted nymphs that--as Jean Sutherland Boggs observes--offer a wry contrast with the 'ascetic and dignified' head? ( J. S. Boggs and A. Maheux, Degas Pastels, London 1992, p. 84). At least one critic assumed that it was from the new Paris Opéra, yet the details of the structure and its moldings correspond only vaguely to the extant building. And who exactly is this unaccompanied, elegantly coiffured woman? Her face has some echoes among Degas' acquaintances, but we might also wonder if she was linked to the picture's first owner, the industrialist Charles Haviland. At his ceramics studio in Auteuil, Haviland employed Degas' friend, Félix Bracquemond, to create decorative plates and other items, and presumably welcomed Degas himself when he made some painted tiles and a lithograph there in the late 1870s (R. Thomson, "Degas' only known painting on tile," Burlington Magazine, March 1988, pp. 222-5). Could Degas' visit also have resulted in a daring commission for a portrait of a Haviland family member, shown in a box at the theatre?
Richard Kendall, Independent Scholar
(fig. 1) Honoré Daumier, Afficionados' Row: View Taken at the Opéra, Lithograph. Fogg Art Museum.Barcode 23668324
(fig. 2) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La loge, 1874. Courtauld Institute Galleries, London. Barcode 23668331
Property from the Paul H. Nitze Family Trust