Studying a painting is the exact opposite of the better part of our life spent glued on our smartphone.
Isn’t it weird then that sharing this blog through social media brings me so many personal connections and mini-conversations that I would not have otherwise? Truly honoured that people I know (and some that I don’t) decide to Follow me, I am thankful for the Likes and the time you take to fill the Comment box. Active looking versus passive flicking, it all comes back to squeezing more out of the little time we have and getting something meaningful in return.
Like most, I flick through Facebook (sometimes) and Instagram (more often) to check on my friends and to feast on the visual world I love so much. Yet, for my sanity, I try to balance the fast and furious short attention span of social media with slow, detailed observations of artworks from a bygone era.
Looking at the Impressionists, I envy the sophistication of what people used to wear, the refinement of outings to the opera and the silent dialogue that such scenes establish with our modern days.
Until I spent too much time recently looking at Renoir’s La Loge. I suddenly realised the lorgnette and opera glasses of the Impressionist era were the Facebook of our time! But did we gain anything with the digital version??
Despite the stage not being in sight, a couple is clearly sitting in an opera box. Such an evening out was a typical Modern Life outing where the cultural aspect was as much on stage as in the audience where people could display, shine and gossip en société.
Renoir used warm gold accents on the lady’s hair, eyes and neck, as reflections on her pearls, bangle and glasses as well as on her flowers and lace cuffs.
The only gold accent visible in the background is his cufflink which diagonally echoes her lowered glasses.
This visually encapsulates their shared space like a gilded frame while also highlighting they are both making themselves available to the audience outside their box (just like us!). Indeed, these details adorn the only parts of their bodies which don’t seem to be fused.
Joined at the shoulder by the black fabric of their clothes, clearly they are a modern pair with an understanding but no intimacy. These days, this often rings too true on Facebook where I keep missing shared moments that matter to me because it gets drowned by everything I should not be able to see.
The couple wear their finest attire ready to be on display and are armed with opera glasses to check who’s with who, who’s wearing what, who seems to have gained a few wrinkles. It’s like a teenager’s two fingers on a screen zooming in!
In this highly coded environment, company kept and attire were like social announcements. She is flaunting finery that only a woman with a husband or a wealthy benefactor could afford. Yet, he is only escorting her. The fact that they are looking in very different directions says as much.
He is looking at/for somebody high up in the audience (not at the stage) but at least he does so in the open. And everybody is doing the same as can be seen in Mary Cassatt’s own In the Loge! This has to be the ancestor of a Like on social media!
Yet, our modern ways can also be quite soulless in comparison: you can check somebody out on social media or on online dating sites without them ever being aware…Our society gone to full voyeurism, comfortably hidden behind the cover of our small screens. That’s basically what happens when no communication is engaged.
Faced with such powers of looking and concealing all wrapped in one, like in Degas’s Femme à la Lorgnette, I am hoping we can fight by being more personal.
Call me a romantic but I’d rather use a be-jewelled lorgnette, so aptly named because lorgner in French means “to ogle” or “to eye furtively”.
It’s about the aesthetics of the object itself and how such an act of looking is both revealed and revealing, awaiting reciprocity and hopefully dialogue down the line. That’s why I chose to start this blog, an interface where comments don’t disappear into the vortex…
The lady in Renoir’s Loge also shows this. She may have been scrutinizing the audience a minute ago but just lowered her opera glasses to let herself be looked at. In doing so, she locks eyes with the viewer. Her gaze is a mix of vulnerability and assertiveness on her heavily made-up face. Renoir modeled her skin tones more distinctly than the typically Impressionist rest of the painting, like a mask betraying her somewhat “commercial” agenda. Frankly again, it’s not dissimilar to the “image” and carefully edited life moments we project on our timeline or feed.
In a very modern way, the opera is where this lady advertises herself as an available courtesan, using her luxurious yet exuberant dress to demonstrate where her social bar and ambition are set.
I am no courtesan but the one aspect of social media I would not want to give up is this ability to communicate demonstrated in her gaze. Something this blog proves me everyday as we connect or reconnect thanks to our electronic devices turned lorgnette!
If you read this, don’t hide behind the social media icons that brought you here. Show me you’ve looked me through your diamond opera glasses!
How?? By signing up for a weekly post or letting me know your thoughts in the blog comment box.
© 2017 Ingrid Westlake
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All images of Renoir’s La Loge are courtesy of the Courtauld Gallery website.
If you want to read a fascinating History of the Lorgnette, check Mimi Matthews’ website via the highlighted link.
You are truly skilled Ingrid! Your writing is amazing. I love reading your posts. Thank you. Emilie
Dear Emilie, thank you so much for the compliments but with friends like you reading as soon as I publish (on your lunch break? 😍), there is no stopping possible!
Post after post what strikes me is your creativity in the choice of themes. The comparison here is very interesting and new. This is what keeps your blogs so interesting, like a novel where each week we want to discover the next chapter 🙂
Thank you, Marlene! Analyzing the gazes at play in the Renoir and the Cassatt was striking in that really not much has changed in terms of human behavior, except in style…I will do my very best to not disappoint with “the next chapter”! 😉
What a wonderful analysis Ingrid! I spent several days getting familiar with La Loge myself – it was my painting of choice for Assignment 1;-). So it is such a coincidence that you have posted on the very same image. I too enjoy the feeling of ‘connection’ you get when you match her gaze – both distance and time fall away and you feel you are seated across from her in the audience – your eyes have met and you are sizing each other up!!!!
Thank you, Amita! Great minds think alike because it’s no coincidence 😉 I chose La Loge for my assignment as well! But once I dived in, it got me thinking about Renoir’s world evolving into ours, the striking similarities of behaviors and the subtle changes…I love the many layers unravelling from the multitude of gazes from then to now.
The digital version plunges us into an ephemeral world.
And I think it’s worse than before.
The common thread between old time and now is the need that people have to stage themselves. With social networks, it has become easy and very fast! but No time to detail.
Have we lost a quality of life ??? Or is it always the same?
I do not think we have become voyeurists, in fact, society evolves and technology gives us the means to “communicate” in silence! And spy too !!
I put my diamond opera glasses near my computer waiting for your next post !!
Thank you ever so much for taking he time to comment! “Communicate in silence”, yes, Marie-Annick. It’s a great technological advance for some of us but it’s also dangerous for young people raised only in that way, young people who text but don’t talk. In the process, they lose the connection and the reading between the lines that the gaze offers so strikingly in Renoir’s painting. That’s what I love most about the painting and the opera glasses, there is no shame in the looking, observing, spying because it’s all in the open. The lady in the stripy dress might even be happy to have been noticed by somebody of importance to her or her world. With social media, the act of looking can be hidden and that’s where voyeurism can occur, in my view. And the worst is when privacy settings don’t work and the lives of people I don’t know are revealed just because we may have friends in common. I just don’t think this is right 😉
Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. “Communicate in silence”, yes, Marie-Annick, such technological advance can be great for us but I am just worried about the impact on young people raised only in that way, people who text and don’t talk. They lose the connection and reading between the lines that the gaze in Renoir’s painting makes so obvious. What I like with the opera glasses is that the act if looking is completely transparent. Everybody can know who is looking and the lady in the stripy dress might just have seen she’s been noticed by somebody who matters to her or her world.
With social media, the act of looking can be hidden so yes, it becomes spying on friends: quite sad, isn’t it?
J’aime beaucoup ta vision de la vie, l’analyse que tu en fais et le recul que tu prends, mettant en parallèle les époques, les modes de vie … et c’est tellement bien écrit ! En plus tu as l’art et la manière d’introduire tes sujets, quel talent ! Bravo.
Merci Nathalie pour de tels compliments. J’ai l’impression que c’est l’âge qui me permet de voir toujours plus et davantage 😉 Mais je dois t’avouer que de mettre par écrit me permet de cristalliser toutes ses pensées et idées qui virevoltent constamment. C’est juste magnifique de savoir que cela raisonne pour toi et d’autres. 😘
Funny way to compare Facebook with Lorgnette. For me, In the Loge, Mary Stevenson Cassat, seems spying .Way of see and be seeing in society.
Thank you for subtil analysis!
I use Facebook to share and to communicate easily.But I know it can be dangerous and addict.
I am looking forward your next post.
Thank you so much, Dominique! Yes, much spying going on in the Cassatt painting but everybody is fully aware of the “game”. I love the ease that Facebook and other social media can give to communication but I am just trying to stay conscious of the problems they can also bring for me, us and the kids later on. Thank you for your readership 😘