Impressionist works from The Courtauld
Focusing on Renoir’s La Loge (1874) this exhibition explores the work of Impressionists, by drawing attention to their position against the traditional art system.
It includes accompanying works on paper by Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissaro and Édouard Manet. The Impressionist works in this exhibition have been loaned to us under the Courtauld National Partners Programme, part of the Courtauld Connects transformation project.
Explore the wider themes of the exhibition below and then dive into the virtual exhibition on Smartify with our curator as your guide.
In the 1870s Paris was a new city, both politically and physically. In the preceding years Napoleon III and his master planner Baron Haussmann had transformed the city into a social centre, with the construction of the boulevards, public buildings and parks that we have come to associate with the modern metropolis. A new culture of leisure was strengthened by an expanded rail network which allowed rural dwellers to affordably journey into Paris for recreation or work, and city dwellers to the country for leisure. Access to mass-produced fabrics enabled more people to be seen in the right fashions and the development of the electric lightbulb meant that the city was accessible day and night. The Impressionists captured this new modern way of life and presented it back to the public, making it even more desirable.
All of this came together as a performance, which is perfectly captured in Renoir’s painting. There has been much speculation, to this day, over who the couple were and if the woman was who she was claiming to be, with her very fashionable but flamboyant dress. We can presume that Renoir desired such speculation, and that the sitters were playing the role of modern Parisians with access to any part of society as long as they looked the part.
Although this was a new Paris, with a new societal structure, traditional arenas remained the site of these cultural exchanges. The theatre, where new members of society came to see and be seen, but also to mix with established members of the old Paris elite, was at the centre of this display and the theatre box the perfect place to show off.
“A spirit of anarchy at work in French painting as in French Politics”, was one London Times critic’s reaction to the Impressionists. They were considered dissidents, associated with the new republic and emerging radical politics that demanded an overhaul of the existing system and old Imperial France.
Nothing better represented old France than the state-sponsored Académie des Beaux Arts and the Salon exhibition judged by its members. Work was selected by a jury according to strict criteria and confined to traditional, and immaculately finished, painting techniques and subject matters.
The Impressionists rebelled against these traditions physically in their use of paint: loose undefined images, use of colour as new technologies and pigments became available, and the employment of these colours to fully reveal how light interacts in the world by displaying its full spectrum and subtleties. They also showed the reality of how people engage with one another by capturing scenes of everyday life. This was all considered revolutionary.
Pissarro, who identified politically as an anarchist, embraced these depictions of truth in his paintings and represented his beliefs in subject matter as well as technique. He frequently depicted manual workers, placing them at centre stage and celebrating their importance in society.
However, many of these artists straddled the line between radical and traditional. Manet did not leave the Salon and continued to move in those circles but, as an abolitionist who sided with the north in the American Civil War, he was also regarded as a modern political reformist. Like many of the Impressionists he was friends with the radical thinkers, writers and academics of the day.
The Impressionists’ anarchism was evidenced by what they depicted, but while male artists were able to be open in addressing politics, Morisot was quietly pushing the boundaries in her intimate and truthful portrayals of women in the domestic space.
There is friction in Impressionist art, and beyond, in how women are portrayed both by men and by themselves. In La Loge, Nini Lopez (one of Renoir’s favourite models) typifies how women were regarded in French society at this time. She was judged, speculated over and, as she was not considered conventionally beautiful, often criticised for her looks. Conversely, the male figure in the work is not there to be judged but is actively looking elsewhere, judging others.
This contrasts with Berthe Morisot’s images of herself, presented in private domesticity. Morisot was in control of how she presented herself to the world, but still bound by notions of how middle-class women were permitted to represent themselves.
Men were at the centre of the new public life in Paris and, within Impressionism, women were often portrayed as passive observers or figures to be observed: to represent the stereotypical chic Parisienne, the artist's model or the prostitute. Other types of women were often consigned to the suburbs, such as Passy, where Morisot lived for most of her life. As a result of her privilege, Morisot was free to move around the city and enjoy its culture, but as a woman she still faced certain restrictions.
Although France was going through cultural reform, and a left-wing political movement had recently emerged, a conservative government established in 1873 introduced many policies concerning moral order, with much focus on women and their importance as mothers and homemakers. Women couldn’t vote, but they were considered the head of the domestic household and recognised as having significant political impact. New rights began to be afforded to them in the 1880s, such as the right to divorce, and many like Morisot enjoyed educational freedom, but these liberties were granted only to the wealthy.
The Impressionist works in this exhibition have been loaned to us under the Courtauld National Partners Programme, part of the Courtauld Connects transformation project.
Samuel and Elizabeth Courtauld are synonymous with Impressionism and helped ignite the popularity around the style through their avid collecting. Samuel Courtauld gifted the majority of his paintings to the public in 1932 but held a number of works back for his enjoyment, including La Loge which he purchased in 1925. It entered the public collection following is death in 1948.