The Vogue for the Loge: Painting the Theatre Box

Opera, coming from the Italian word for labour/work, realised the Baroque ambition of integrating all the arts. Music and drama were the fundamental ingredients, complemented by staging and costume design. It’s no wonder then, with this intertwining of disciplines, that opera was frequently documented by fine artists in paintings, drawings, and printmaking. This practice was particularly prevalent in France, where the genre was to dominate the stage evolving into romantic grand opera by the turn of the 19th century. Opera as an art form has been considered intrinsic to French culture ever since.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) La Loge (The Theater Box)

French opera tradition dates back as far as 1673 with a performance of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione performed at the court of Louis XIV of France. By the end of the 18th century, opera had become an international phenomenon and had generated several genres, both comic and serious. In the 19th century, the growing wealth and influence of the bourgeoisie in France began to broaden the audience for opera and result in changes to the form itself.

Opera became more accessible to a wider audience and a bigger part of everyday life for the upper-middle class. Where historically it had been the domain of the nobility and aristocracy, there was now an opera for almost everyone in French society to attend. By the mid-19th century, the Opéra was considered the theatre for the aristocracy and the nouveau riche, the Opéra-Comique that of the bourgeoisie, and the Théâtre-Lyrique stood as the opera house for the working man and woman and the hard-up artist. Towards the end of the century, however, these lines began to blur much to the unease of the upper-class who were increasingly uncomfortable at the Opéra due to the increased numbers of bourgeoisie attendees.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844–1926) In the Loge. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston / Alamy

During the late 19th century, the opera became not only a place to watch a performance but also a social gathering where high society would mingle and show off their latest fashions. It also served as one of the only social settings that women could freely attend. These changes in the audiences were reflected not only in the prosperity of the operatic arts but also depicted by the artists of the time. Whilst historically artists had depicted narrative scenes from the operas themselves, they began portraying audiences in the act of watching the opera. The artist’s gaze shifted from the stage to the boxes, and the observers became the observed. 

The subject of the loge, or theatre box, was one that was favoured by the Impressionists as it fulfilled their desire to depict the spectacle of modern life. In 1874, Pierre-Auguste Renoir exhibited La Loge (The Theatre Box) at the first Impressionist group exhibition in Paris to much critique. Whilst some admired Renoir’s new subject matter and his painterly technique, several reviewers were troubled by the main subject. Their primary contention was that the central female figure appeared not to be a respectably married member of fine society but rather that her extravagant dress and made-up face alluded to her being a high-class courtesan.

§ Jean-Gabriel Domergue (1889-1962) La Loge. $6,000-8,000

Shortly after, in 1878, artist Mary Cassatt painted In the Loge (also known as At the Opera) which again takes a central female figure as its primary subject. Cassatt’s woman plays a more active role in the composition, depicted engaged in watching the opera whilst a man from another box in the distance turns his gaze away from the stage to look at her. Renoir by comparison approached his female subject with a direct gaze in order to display her physical features more prominently.

The opera box continued to be a source of fascination for artists throughout the 20th century, featured in works by artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jean-Gabriel Domergue, Jean Beraud, Charles Henry Tenré, and more. Aside from the natural frame that the theatre box provides, it also offers opportunities to explore a variety of themes such as the relationship between appearance and reality, and the confluence of public and private space. The artist can capture a sitter who is conscious of both watching and of being watched and at the same time present to us a little slice of Parisian life.

By Madeleine Norton, Head of Decorative Arts & Art, Sydney

Top Image (detail): § Jean-Gabriel Domergue (1889-1962) La Loge. $6,000-8,000

May 2024