Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: The Theatre Box by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Zuzanna Stańska 7 October 2018 min Read

Entertainments such as cabarets, theatres and the circus were popular themes among the Impressionist painters whose mission was portraying the modern city life. Theatre in Paris was a rapidly expanding industry during the 19th century where it was important to be seen. Hence it was also a perfect subject for a painter wanting to present a social vanity fair. 

Here we see Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s younger brother Edmond sitting in a theatre box with Nini Lopez, a model known as “fish-face”. Edmond uses a pair of opera glasses to scan the audience while Nini holds hers in her hand, her gaze slightly unfocused as if she knows she is being looked at by other operagoers.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Theatre Box
Pierre Auguste Renoir, La Loge (Theatre box), 1874, The Courtauld Gallery, London, UK.

Edmond Renoir was a journalist and art critic and it’s hard to tell anything interesting about him (other than that he looks quite handsome in this painting). Yet there is more to tell about his companion: Nini Lopez was a frequent model for Renoir’s paintings, but this particular one was her first one. Known for being serious and punctual, the young woman became the artist’s favorite model between 1875 and 1879, appearing in at least 14 paintings. In 1877 Nini disappeared from Renoir’s painting following her marriage to a third-rate actor in the Montmartre theatre. Her mother was quite disappointed, as she preferred her daughter to marry someone from the bourgeoisie.

But back to the painting itself. Renoir was the ultimate painter of the pleasures of the eye. His art centered on the concept of art as something “chic”. A contemporary critic known as Bertall described “chic” as a “bearing, ease of manner, appearance and impromptu elegance…” This is what The Theatre Box captures with delicate brushstrokes and sensual tones.

The Theatre Box was included in the Impressionists’ first group exhibition in 1874. Critics were divided over it: one saw it as a warning of the dangerous temptations of the fashion industry; another praised its elegance. One thing is known for sure – this painting is a hymn to 19th-century French elegance.

Recommended

Plate with Arabic Inscription, ca 975-1000, painted and glazed earthenware, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France. Detail. Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Plate with Arabic Inscription

Plate with Arabic Inscription is a masterpiece of 10th century Islamic art. It combines minimalism, abstraction, and morality into a beautiful and...

James W Singer 5 May 2022

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, The Dance, 1890, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA. Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: At the Moulin Rouge, The Dance by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Tonight the Moulin Rouge is bursting at the seams. Men in dark coats and distinguished women dance and converse on the buzzing floor. Each has a...

Ruxi Rusu 29 April 2022

Carl Gustav Carus, Woman on the Balcony, 1824, oil on canvas, Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden, Germany. Detail. Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Woman on the Balcony by Carl Gustav Carus

Woman on the Balcony is an intimate portrait of a person lost in thought. There is no action and no obvious story to interpret. However, its quiet...

James W Singer 25 April 2022

Jean Antoine Watteau, Feast of Love, ca 1718-19, oil on canvas, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany. Detail. Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Feast of Love by Jean Antoine Watteau

Feast of Love is a beautiful painting by Jean Antoine Watteau that explores the themes of love and impermanence. It holds a polished mixture of urban...

James W Singer 11 April 2022