La Loge by Renoir (The Theater Box)

Renoir at the Theatre: Looking at La Loge from The Courtauld Gallery

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. 

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.

 ‘Stop’ (Louis Morel-Retz) (1825-99) Aux Italiens (At the Italian Theatre) Caricature from Le Petit Journal pour Rire, 1857 The Courtauld Gallery, London 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 logesof 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.

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.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) At the Concert, 1880 Oil on canvas, 99 x 80 cm  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.