I have recently begun tutoring a student in A-level art history, which has had the happy side-effect of bringing me back in touch with many paintings I have not examined for a long time. The syllabus is almost identical to that which I studied all those years ago, and it has been fun to look back at some of them. (Perhaps the subject of a later post on the subject of the formation and reformation of canons!) Renoir’s La Loge is one such painting that has been brought back into my life. Part of the collection of the Courtauld Gallery, the painting was the subject of a blog post I wrote five years ago, before I had even begun my undergraduate degree (find it here). I am surprised to say that I still largely agree with what I wrote about it. I still feel this is a painting all about the interplay of gazes, about looking and being looked at. However, there is one aspect of the painting that is largely missing from my discussion: the female gaze. I am not alone in this, much writing on the painting focuses exclusively on the male gaze, on the role of the man in the painting, and the male viewer. While it is undoubtedly important to consider the role of gender in the creation and appreciation of this work, throughout much art historical analysis (not just that of this painting), this has led to a sort of game of ‘spot the male gaze’. While the historical and continued oppression of women has overwhelmingly led to the prioritising of the male gaze in the creation of artworks, and the effects of this in the work’s interpretation, it is important that we do not erase instances of the appeal to the female gaze where they do occur.
The ‘female gaze’ is often taken to be a simple inversion of the male gaze, thus a painting appealing to it might involve the objectification of male figures. The heteronormativity of such ideas aside, it is also important to recognize other, perhaps more subtle ways that an artist might engage with the idea of the female gaze (whether they would have used that terminology or not). So we come back to La Loge itself. The male figure’s roving gaze is often noted – pointing straight up, and, judging by the curve of the box itself, back into the theatre – he is clearly not watching the stage. The opera glasses he holds become symbolic of his supposed appetite for women, passing an admiring gaze over the female members of the audience. This is sometimes interpreted as a snub to the woman in the painting: not satisfied by her, he literally looks elsewhere. Interpretation of the woman often focuses on her meek interaction with or submissive acceptance of this cultural phenomenon. She is described as ‘meek’, or ‘passive’. Alternatively she might, according to another brand of misogyny, be accused of ‘asking for it’, or looking for male attention: she leans forward, looking up towards us, also not engaging with the opera itself, a flower placed in her bodice drawing the eye. She happily submits to the inquisitive male gaze, it might be said, and, by association, that of the viewer.
However, there is one component of the painting that suggest that something more is going on in the painting. She too holds opera glasses. While these were of course a necessity amongst the fashionable elite, and she holds a smaller, more decorative pair than her male companion, in the context of the painting, the opera glass seems to have taken on a greater meaning than its mere practical function. Highlighted in bright gold colours, her glasses suggest a more active engagement in the interplay of gazes that the painting depicts. It is not only the male audience members who make visual enquiries across the room, the women too look for pleasure through viewing. Women too might be in possession of a scopophilic gaze. Renoir’s audience would predominantly have been male, and it is understandable that the painting has been interpreted both as a critique of the bourgeois male’s entitled attitude towards women, and as Renoir’s own possible participation in such attitudes. However let us not forget that women too visited exhibitions, including the First Impressionist Exhibition, where this painting was exhibited in 1874. Even if most of the critics were men, women did still see, appreciate, and engage with art (which seems a rather obvious thing to say). In the period when characters such as Nana were being written by Zola, and Madeleine Forestier by Guy de Maupassant, it seems not unlikely that creators in the visual arts might also have wanted to represent a broadening range of female characterisations, and the wider possibilities that were opening up to women brave enough to pursue them in the face of a society ever-ready to shun. Nana and Madeleine Forestier are both women who embrace their own sexual appetites and desires, and even the respectable Forestier is at ease with her appreciation of male beauty. Renoir’s woman, scanning the crowd, might be a similar character. Thus it seems quite plausible that this woman is not passively objectified, but actively engages in an exchange of gazes, thinking of her own pleasures and desires, not simply submitting to those of her viewers.
It would be just as bad however to assume that this painting is just about men and women. The aforementioned heteronormativity of such an assumption is obvious, but this painting could as much be about female friendship, or kinship. The gaze could be one of recognition, of one woman acknowledging another. The women who visited the exhibition would likely have been familiar with the world depicted, and have experienced something similar themselves. Past me only managed to acknowledge that the female interaction with this painting might be with a sense of jealously, an ‘eyeing up’ of potential competition (a notion I’m glad to say I can now see far beyond, and acknowledge the inherent misogyny of such an assumption), but I think this painting may as much be one of friendship, or at least acknowledgement of shared experience. To the Parisian woman, this may have acted as an image of herself, and her friends.
There is so much more to this painting than men’s sexual interest in women, and I’m grateful that I’ve had the chance to look back at it, with fresh eyes, greater experience, and a fuller sense of its representation of human experience.