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The Little Theatre Box (1874) by artist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir is considered a masterpiece of impressionism
It shows a couple dressed in fine clothes sitting in a theatre box looking down at the stage. The theatre is a common subject of impressionist paintings as it epitomised modern life.
It was a place were the growing middle class could go and see the fashions and experience the excitement of Parisian society.
Many artists have found Paris life to be an influential factor on their careers, as seen in Degas' Absinthe. Amedeo Modigliani's paintings also offer portraits of some interesting characters from the city. Gustave Caillebotte also found inspiration in this city.
Renoir was the first artist to use the theatre box as the main subject of his paintings and in doing so, utilised the visual culture of the time. Others including Honore Daumier (1808-79) and Paul Gavarni (1804-66), took the subject of the theatre box as a means to construct social satires. There was a growing wealth in the middle class at the time, which meant that the theatre was no longer just the domain of the upper class.
However, the glamour of the theatre box remained which led to people using it in an attempt to promote their wealth and worth as well as their unmarried daughters. This led to theatre scenes becoming popular in a way that glossy magazine showcasing celebrities and trends do today.
Renoir's distinctive style of subtle but intentional brushstrokes is evident in this piece. The colours used, reflect the vibrancy of the theatre and the energy of the strokes mimic the atmosphere of the theatre. Despite not seeing anything of the performance or the stage, the viewer gets an impression of the experience through the handling of the paint, thus achieving what impressionist painting strives to do.
Furthermore, the angle from which the couple are painted was not typical of the 19th century, though it was common for unusual angles to be used in impressionist paintings. The angle makes the viewer feel that they are situated alongside the couple instead of a mere observer of a painter. This technique affords the artist far more control of how the painting is perceived and how the viewer is made to feel.
As is typical of Renoir's paintings, the female in the painting epitomises femininity and she illustrates Renoir's appreciation for beauty and sensuality. Renoir worked by making sketches in situ at the theatre before taking them back and painting the scenes at his studio. While painting The Little Theatre Box he used a model called Nini for the woman depicted and one of his brothers for the man.
Due to some confusion in the recording and translation of titles, The Little Theatre Box is often mistaken for The Theatre Box also by Renoir painted in the same year. It shows a man and woman in a theatre box but the angle is from straight on as opposed to from the side as is the case in The Little Theatre Box. The Theatre Box enjoys a higher profile than The Little Theatre Box and forms part of The Courtauld Gallery’s collection in London.