Text by Geoffrey Smith
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A man and a woman are occupying a box at the theatre but one feels that they are more intent on the social aspects of theatregoing than what is happening on stage. Certainly the man, training his opera glasses upwards, is absorbed in scanning the audience. Similarly, it seems that the rather glazed eyes of the woman are not fixed on the stage — she is really there ‘to be seen’. The relationship between the two is not explicit and at least one reviewer drew the conclusion that she was a cocotte, a class of ‘kept’ women (whose status ranged from mistress to prostitute). It matters not — at this moment they inhabit Renoir’s agreeable world of pleasure and sociable companionship.
The picture was exhibited at the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874 and was one of the few paintings which were not subjected to derision by the critics. In fact it received some praise. This is probably because of its relatively ‘finished’ look in relation to much of the rest of the exhibition. Renoir was always able to produce elaborate set piece pictures at the same time as freer more ‘impressionist’ landscapes. In La Loge the woman’s face has been finished to standards which would have pleased a conservative academician. In the rest of the picture there is a quite exceptional richness in the handling of the paint and the considerable attention to detail (the highlights on her necklace for instance) adds to the overall effect of opulence As in other large-scale set piece works of this period, Renoir creates a sort of nineteenth-century sfumato, deliberately blurring the edges between forms and then building up a frenzy of paint to produce a lavish and tactile rendition of the gown, which, with the face of Nini, is the principal subject of the picture. The stripes of the gown together with the evening wear of her companion give the composition an interesting black and white bias relieved by the leather and wood tones of the theatre box and the flowers, wonderfully painted by Renoir, placed in her décolletage.
Although the exhibition of the Société Anonyme Co-opérative d’Artistes-Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs etc, to give it its correct title, was not a total failure in terms of sales, and even though the painting received praise, La Loge did not sell at its asking price of 500 francs but was sold later for 425 francs. Over a century later this picture has been hailed by one critic as Renoir’s finest masterpiece. It has some tough competition but having seen it in the ‘flesh’ you may well consider this assessment to be no less that the truth.
1873 Jean-François Millet: Spring, Paris, Musée d'Orsay
1874 James Tissot: The Ball on Shipboard, London, Tate Britain.
1875 Gustave Caillebotte: The Floor-Scrapers, Paris, Musée d'Orsay