A closer look at Renoir’s La Loge through the lens of fashion

Pierre-August Renoir, La Loge, 1874, oil on canvas, 80 x 63.5 cm, (The Courtauld Gallery, London)
Pierre-August Renoir, La Loge, 1874, oil on canvas, 80 x 63.5 cm, (The Courtauld Gallery, London)

Renoir placed fashion at the heart of La Loge, which he painted in 1874. His representation of a fashionably dressed young couple seated in a theatre box expressed the desire of the Impressionists to capture the beauty and excitement of modern life through a new language of painting. The physical transmutation of dress onto canvas shows that fashion is both a vibrant form of visual and material culture and a major economic force, indicative of wider social and cultural meanings.

The woman in the foreground, who some critics have referred to as Nini, has an elusive sophistication that dominates the painting, reliant on her character and deportment as much as on her dress. Her pose, in which one hand is placed on her handkerchief by her left hip, whilst her figure is emphasised by expert corsetry and luxury fabrics, renders her every bit the fashion model. Nini’s face is executed in minute detail, her features carefully and delicately modelled in such a way that our eyes flicker between the bodice and her face in search for the principal focus of the composition.

Renoir expresses the sensual tactility of Nini’s overall appearance. Her silvery painted face and neck has a slightly blurred texture that complements the gauzy fabric of her dress. Her sparkling jewellery captures the viewer’s eye and evokes the visual and literal consumption so fundamental to fashion. Renoir produces a poetic interpretation of the more prosaic details of dress through delicate, softly brushed forms of varying colour and tones. His paint handling is varied and fluent. Forms are delicately rendered without crisp contours. Nini’s gown provides a strong monochrome and triangular underpinning to the composition. Black and blue paint are mixed to suggest a play of light and shade. Surrounding this focal point are varied nuances of blue, green and yellow, which recur in the white fabrics, acting as a counterpoint to the rosy warm hues of the woman’s flesh and the pinks and reds that form the flowers in her hair and on her bodice.

If we look at La Loge in close proximity, all that can be seen are brushstrokes. When viewed from a distance, however, the dress sits back to display the three-dimensional forms lying within its stripes. This interplay between the informal, sketch-like appearance of the paint and the extraordinary amount of detail conveyed in the painting can be read as a visual manifestation of fashion’s complex and dualistic nature. Likewise, fashion can have the intensity of the personal, expressing individual taste and emotion, yet the power and impact of the general, encouraging everyone to dress in a certain, often homogenous, way.