The theater was a popular subject for nineteenth-century artists and an especially prominent theme in Impressionist imagery. At mid-century Honoré Daumier turned his attention to this modern urban spectacle in his paintings and lithographs, and in subsequent decades several artists associated with Impressionism and Post-Impressionism produced images of the theater. These range from Edgar Degas's scenes of dancers on stage, musicians in the orchestra, preparations in the wings, and audience members to Mary Cassatt's depictions of women and young girls in loges. Henri de Toulouse-Laurec's lithographs from the early to mid-1890s, roughly contemporaneous with the present painting, also represent figures in theater boxes, confirming the continuing interest in this aspect of contemporary public life.
Images of the theater may also be positioned more broadly as part of the emerging visual culture of Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century. Interest in depicting scenes of modern life intensified in response to the reconstruction of the city under the emperor Napoleon III and Baron Georges Haussmann. As the boulevards opened more panoramic vistas and connected newly built sections of the city, the physical alterations generated a new social sphere. When Charles Garnier's Paris Opéra opened its doors in 1875, for instance, it became central to the changes, both tangible and symbolic, within the capital. Like the cafés, parks, and racetracks that offered expanded opportunities for public entertainment, theaters became increasingly important cultural venues during the 1870s and 1880s. As a locale that allowed for, if not actually encouraged, the mixing of classes, the theater served as a microcosmic representation of contemporary Parisian society.
Renoir first depicted the theater in the mid-1870s, roughly two decades before he painted the present canvas. In many of these early works, he represented the loge as a venue where women were pervasively, even primarily, on display. Women who attended the theater often sat in boxes; any male companions sat behind, positioning the women more clearly for public view. The theater was undeniably a place to see and be seen, especially since house lights generally stayed on during the performance. As Renoir's son Jean has indicated, this practice was quintessential to the artist's experience; he was particularly adamant about his ability to watch others and reacted vehemently to any divergence from full illumination. According to Jean, Renoir asserted, "They've no right to shut people up in the dark for three solid hours. It's taking a mean advantage of you...I might want to look at a pretty woman sitting in a box. For me, there's just as much of a show in the audience. The public is as important to me as the actors" (quoted in J. Renoir, Renoir: My Father, Boston, 1962, p. 189).
An example of Renoir's theater imagery from the 1870s is La loge (fig. 1), which he exhibited in the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874. This canvas depicts a couple seated in a theater box. The woman, clearly adorned for a night out, holds the typical accoutrements of opera glasses and a fan, neither of which she actively uses; instead, she leans on the front ledge of the loge and stares somewhat blankly toward the viewer. Her companion, by contrast, employs his opera glasses to gaze upward and across the auditorium, in a gesture that mirrors the type of looking that seems to have generated this composition. The close-up and slightly elevated perspective of the painting suggests a similarly voyeuristic view, as though the scene had been captured by someone across the theater, exploiting the binocular vision of opera glasses. This vantage point and the attitudes of the figures thus stage erotic and gendered dynamics of looking, even suggesting a sexual economy implicit in the modern city, which the Goncourt brothers made explicit in statements about the theater: "From the stage to the auditorium, from the wings to the stage, and from one side of the auditorium to the other, invisible threads criss-cross between dancers' legs, actresses' smiles, and spectators' opera-glasses, presenting an overall picture of pleasure, orgy, and intrigue" (quoted in D. Bershad, "Looking, Power and Sexuality: Degas's Woman with a Lorgnette," in R. Kendall and G. Pollock, eds., Dealing with Degas: Representations of Women and the Politics of Vision, New York, 1991, pp. 100-101).
The poet Charles Baudelaire, who famously described the urban milieu of nineteenth-century Paris and the subjects of Impressionist art in essays such as "The Painter of Modern Life," also wrote about the theater in a passage that is an apt description of Renoir's La loge of 1874: "Sometimes in the diffused radiance of the opera or theater, young girls of the best society, their shoulders, eyes, and jewels catching the light, resemble gorgeous portraits as they sit in their boxes, which serve as picture-frames. Some prim and proper, others frivolous and fair. Some, with aristocratic unconcern, display a precocious bosom, others candidly reveal their boyish chests. Fans on teeth, with fixed or wandering eye, they are theatrical or solemn like the play or opera they pretend to be looking at" (quoted in J.A. Barter, "Mary Cassatt: Themes, Sources, and the Modern Woman," in Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, 1998, p. 47).
While loges acted, according to Baudelaire, to frame members of the audience, they increasingly performed other functions as well. Women started to become more frequent and independent spectators at theatrical performances, going to the theater alone or in groups. Matinées were first offered in 1869, and these performances sometimes included introductory lectures, which appealed especially to bourgeois women (see G. Pollock, Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern Women, London, 1998, p. 141). Popular images, particularly in women's magazines, often showed groups of women occupying the loge. As Judith Barter has pointed out, women received and entertained in theater boxes as they did in their living rooms: "Friends could enter a loge to visit and take refreshment, making it almost an extension of the domestic salon" (in op. cit., p. 47).
Painted in the mid-1890s, the present canvas reflects these changes in the practice of theater-going. In subject and composition, it recalls works such as Renoir's The First Outing (fig. 2), which depicts a young girl and her mother at the theater, the former wearing a high-necked dress typical of attire at afternoon performances. Renoir depicts this scene from inside the loge itself. Like Mary Cassatt's images of women at the theater (fig. 3), The First Outing thus shows the loge as a feminine domain, whose occupants seem less on display and more engaged in watching the performance. Even in the present painting, which introduces a male companion, the girls look out of the box, seemingly enthralled by the production that they are witnessing; their gazes and postures, as well as the diagonal movement between their hats, direct the viewer's attention to the left of the composition, presumably toward the stage.
This composition has the spirit of Cassatt's representations of women at the theater, yet its focus seems equally, if not predominantly, on the figures' attire. In the 1890s, Renoir "returned to scenes of daily sociability that he had not portrayed since 1883: friends' homes, the theater, and his own home, filled with fashionably dressed women" (in B.E. White, Renoir: His Life, Art, and Letters, New York, 1984, p. 208). During this decade, Renoir developed a special fascination with women's fashion, especially elaborate hats, and often commissioned specific examples for his paintings. The prominence of hats in his work from this period was likely motivated at least in part by the market. According to John House, Renoir's "most often repeated subject of the 1890s was the modern costume piece--figures of girls, often wearing fancy hats. It was with pictures such as these, it seems, that he found a real market in the 1890s, particularly with Durand-Ruel" (in Renoir, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, p. 251). In the present painting, as in contemporary portraits (fig. 4), hats exert an unexpected prominence within the composition. Yet Griselda Pollock has noted, "Theater owners were obliged to forbid their female patrons from wearing anything larger than bonnets, and put up shelves in the corridors for the deposit of over-exuberant hats that would impede a view of the stage" (in op. cit., p. 141). Renoir has thus inserted his interest in fashion into the present painting in ways that diverge from contemporary social practice. The hats, with their dark colors and dynamic plumes, offer both visual interest and a spatial barrier. They function to confirm Renoir's assimilation of multiple contemporary contexts and to underscore the levels of clever artifice in this remarkable painting.
(fig. 1) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La loge, 1874. Courtauld Institute Galleries, London. BARCODE 25012941
(fig. 2) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The First Outing, 1875-1876. National Gallery, London. BARCODE 25012958
(fig. 3) Mary Cassatt, Women in a Loge, 1881-1882. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. BARCODE 25012965
(fig. 4) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jeune fille au chapeau noir à fleurs rouges, 1898. Sold, Christie's, New York, 6 November 2007, Lot 10. BARCODE 25009811