Pierre-August Renoir, La Loge, 1874 Berthe Morisot, At the Ball, 1875
(The Courtland Gallery, London) (Musee Marmottan, Paris)
In Renoir's La Loge we see a cocotte sitting at the front of the box at the opera in front of a man who is probably her benefactor, her face painted white, lips red, displaying a generous bosom for all to see accentuated with the flowers she wears to display her cleavage to its best advantage. She is in a garish black and white dress that would have drawn attention to her even from a distance. Renoir has painted glistening pearls around her neck and white flecks in her eyes to further idealize her for the male viewer. She is holding a pair of binoculars; her accessories complete her decorativeness to the man sitting next to her. She has an unfocused, vapid gaze, a passive looker, aware of being objectified. The man sitting next to her, on the other hand, is looking out at the audience with his binoculars, not even paying any attention to her.
Berthe Morisot was probably aware of Renoir's La Loge when she painted At the Ball in 1875 since they were acquainted and she would invite him to the salons she held for her artist friends on Thursdays, at her house in Bougival. Even though Renoir was of middle class origins while Morisot was from the upper class, their shared passion for art, enabled them to become friends.
In Morisot's painting we see another woman in an evening gown, wearing flowers and very little makeup. She is in a dress that is subtle and the flowers are not to draw attention to herself but to symbolize her innocence. She is a respectable, wealthy female at a ball. Her sideways, assured, contemplative gaze informs the viewer that she is a thinking woman. There is nothing in her eyes that tells us what she is thinking but she has a meditative expression and this is probably a scene out of Berthe Morisot's own experience.
The literature of Modernity describes the experience of men. According to Baudelair "... (women are) objects of a keenest admiration and curiosity that the picture of life can offer to its contemplator. She is an idol, stupid perhaps, but dazzling and bewitching... Everything that adorns woman that serves to show off her beauty is part of herself..." Griselda Pollock in her essay Modernity and The Spaces of Femininity, has made a grid using Baudelair's theories about the position of women as the object of the flaneur's gaze and their representation by the artists of the time according to their gender. While male artists had access to ladies as well as fallen women at the theater, park, cafes, folies and brothels, female artists only had access to ladies of fashionable society and children to be represented either at the theater, park or at the home. The opera and the ball were two places that were above the grid of respectability making it available to both genders.1
Like Cassatt, Morisot painted the inner world of the upper class female. Baudelair's explanation of the stupid, beautiful, adorned woman is visualized in Renoir's La Loge while Morrisot seems to be making a contradictory statement of her own in her painting, At the Ball,by showing for all to see that a woman who is beautiful could also be a thinking woman too.
1. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History, (Westviewpress, 1992,) 255-258