We seem to be sitting in a box at the theatre with two young women, though we can’t be sure what is going on. We can’t see the stage and one of the women is looking away from us, the back of her bonnet hiding most of the other’s face. This sense of mystery is enhanced by the nearer woman’s pose, leaning forward slightly as though something is absorbing her attention. It may not be the stage performance that has captured her eye: in nineteenth-century Paris, attending the theatre was as much about social status as seeing the show. We get a strong sense of an atmosphere of people-watching in this picture. Among the audience in the background, a man in the lower tier and a woman above him stand out. They seem to have their eyes turned, either on us, the viewer, or on the young woman in the box.
We seem to be sitting in a box at the theatre, which we share with two young women. But we can’t be sure what is going on. We can’t see the stage and we have only a very partial view of the audience. One woman is looking away from us and the back of her bonnet hides most of the other’s face, so we can’t gauge their expressions clearly or make a reliable judgement as to how old they are. Nor can we tell what they are looking at.
This sense of mystery – of a hidden narrative – is enhanced by the fact that the nearer of the two women is sitting very upright and leaning forward slightly, as though something is absorbing her attention. This is hardly surprising given the occasion, but it may not be the stage performance which has captured her eye. In nineteenth-century Paris, attending the theatre was as much about social status as it was about watching the show – seeing who was there, what they were wearing and with whom they were associating.
The grand staircase in the foyer of the Palais Garnier opera house, which had opened only a year or two before this painting was made, was built with a series of balconies on either side – vantage points to view those arriving at the theatre. The auditorium itself, like many others in the city, was designed with boxes that faced more towards the rest of the audience than towards the stage: the occupants were on display as much as the performers. Renoir was clearly conscious of this tension. In La Loge (Courtauld Institute, London), his other famous painting of a theatre box, one of the occupants is depicted using his opera glasses not to focus on the stage but to scan the audience around him.
We get a strong sense of an atmosphere of people-watching in this picture too. Among the loosely sketched audience in the background, Renoir has made two figures – a man in the lower tier and a woman in the tier above him – stand out. They seem to have their eyes turned, either on us or, we might think, on the young woman in the box. He also made changes to the composition to increase the focus on her. X-radiography shows that he painted over two additional figures who were seated in the front of the box.
Renoir did not give this painting its current title La Première Sortie (‘the first outing’) so it is not a reliable guide to how we should interpret it. This title was first used in 1923, when the picture was sold in a London auction. This was after Renoir’s death and nearly 50 years after the picture was made. The title was probably applied to make the painting more marketable and seems to stem from the perceived youth of the woman in black, the apparent excitement suggested by her posture and the fact that she clasps a bunch of flowers.
Before 1923 the painting had been referred to more neutrally as ‘Au Théâtre’ (’At the Theatre‘) and also ’Le Café-Concert’, which is strange as the setting is much grander than the sort of venue where café concerts, which were such a popular entertainment at the time, were held. There is no evidence that any of these was used by Renoir, who often gave his paintings no titles at all.
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