Paris during the second half of the nineteenth century was a fascinating, dizzying, disconcerting place. The city’s population doubled between 1850 and 1870, from one million to two, and showed no signs of stopping there. New bars and clubs opened by the dozen, new theatres and café-concerts threw open their doors to the public. Horse-racing, gambling and prostitution flourished. Even the fabric of
Those avenues and boulevards filled with a teeming multitude, an unprecedentedly vast urban crowd. Such was the press of people, such the fluidity of modern society, that it became increasingly difficult to know, at first sight, who anybody really was. The lady over there, in her fine clothes and her ermine wrap – was she an aristocrat, or the wife of a railway baron? Was she the consort of Monsieur X, managing director of the new department store, or was she – whisper it, for the sake of propriety – une impure, a prostitute?
Impressionism is sometimes mistakenly regarded as a light-hearted and frivolous form of painting. In fact it was a deeply serious movement – the first concerted attempt to capture, in art, those huge shifts in the texture of experience that had been engendered by the modern city. In Impressionist painting, nothing is fixed and nothing is stable. Instead, everything shifts and moves. Impressionism is the art of the cropped composition, the glimpsed view, the transitory encounter. The Impressionists paint nature as well as the urban environment of brothel, bar and street, which is why they are sometimes thought of as pastoral artists in search of a timeless idyll. But the truth is they are towndwellers even when in the countryside. They bring to nature a restlessly glancing and impatient form of attention – a way of seeing that came from and always ultimately referred back to the city.
“Renoir at the Theatre” is the latest in the Courtauld Gallery’s exemplary series of exhibitions focussing on a single picture from the institution’s own collections. It might be a small show but it goes straight to the whirling heart of Impressionism. The painting under consideration is a picture by Renoir, that he exhibited at the very first Impressionist exhibition, in 1874, and to which he gave the title La Loge. It is, in essence, a painting about looking and being looked at in the melee of the modern world.
Renoir shows two people, a man and a woman, in a sketchily indicated box at the theatre. The man, a rather shadowy presence behind his richly dressed companion, holds his opera glasses to his eyes. The young lady holds her own glasses in her kid-gloved right hand, which she rests on the faded plush that cushions the front of the box. Her lips are rouged and she wears white foundation. Points of reflected light in the pupils of her eyes – the gaslight of the theatrical spectacle – are rhymed by the glitter of her diamond earrings. She wears a fashionable black-and-white striped dress, probably designed by the great couturier Worth, who specialised in such creations. The coils of a pearl necklace set off the milky whiteness of her skin and a wired bodice exaggerates her cleavage. A rose is pinned to the front of her decollete costume. The young woman, attending a theatrical spectacle, framed within the spectacle of a painting, is herself a work of art.
The names of Renoir’s two sitters are known. She is Nini, a model from
The Courtauld exhibition contains a number of other, fascinating images of people in the boxes of mid-nineteenth-century Parisian theatres. Many of the earliest images take the form of cartoons and satires, including the vivid sketches of Constantin Guys. The first known oil painting of the subject is in fact by the pre-eminent French caricaturist, Honore Daumier – a close-cropped study of five men and women rapt in concentration on the unseen spectacle below, while a bored little boy stares in stultification at his own hands. It is revealing that there should have been such a rich tradition of popular images of people in theatre boxes. Most simply satirise modern morals, but several also dwell on the notion that the theatre itself was a distillation of all that made modern
The Impressionists often drew on the work of cartoonists and satirists, because it was part of their collective mission to bring all aspects of contemporary life within the sphere of fine art. They believed that what was going on in their world was interesting enough, significant enough and strange enough to merit translation into the traditionally “high” medium of oil painting. So it is that Degas compresses the Paris Opera to a length of gilded balustrade and the spectrally lit fragment of a single, female onlooker’s face. Louis Forain frames the face of a woman, monumental in her black bonnet, against a sea of invisible faces, as if attempting to catch in paint the theatregoer’s furtive, sideways glance at his neighbour. Mary Cassatt paints a woman in mourning, training her binoculars on the stage, while a gentleman in the middle distance trains his binoculars on her.\
In Renoir’s Café-Concert of 1876, the artist even manages to paint the very process of catching someone’s eye, by the stratagem of including, beyond the pretty girl in his foreground, just one young man in focus amid a blurred crowd. Impressionist paintings of the theatre depict a voyeur’s paradise, full of such pointedly criss-crossed gazings. The air is thick with looks from a distance, looks exchanged or ignored. The furtive eye-contact that people once exchanged in church has become, in the gilded secular temple of the playhouse, brazen and unashamed. The privacy of the box is licence for a profligate, promiscuous way of seeing and feeling.
Charles Baudelaire’s great essay “The Painter of Modern Life”, the prophetic text of Impressionist art, vividly described the new sense of the city as experienced by the flaneur, dilettante of the streets. “The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes… For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywehere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world…” Baudelaire’s flaneur, enjoying the city’s sights and sounds while accepting its cornucopian anarchy, was to be the epitome of the Impressionist artist. As the Courtauld’s new exhibition so eloquently suggests, there was nowhere better to experience his selfish yet selfless sense of immersion – that feeling of being at the centre, yet hidden – than in a private box at one of Paris’s great public theatres.