Railing against It: boxed in with Renoirs: ‘The Umbrellas’.
Early Morning Train
Jammed into my seat, I watch two suited men silently jostle their laptops to gain space on the narrow table. There is exactly not enough room for two open laptops. The loser has to angle his virtual portal, the winner gets the flat keyboard and no reflections; happy days. Watching this battle for space is one of the minor joys of my morning commute.
The Painted Space within a Space
As in paintings, the lesser space within the greater is equally helpful in understanding the wider space around us, as for example in the Loggia in Piero della Francesca’s ‘The Flagellation’.
That painted space can also be small, a window or mirror (The Arnolfini of course).
Renoir: The Umbrellas
Or smaller still, can we include those objects that contain something relevant, the skulls and shells in Vanitas paintings? Containers that once held life are now just empty space; the lack of current content being the point of the painting. Thinking further on a container that might, or might not, be empty look for example at the band box in Renoir’s ‘The Umbrella’s’ in the National Gallery, London.
Famously, this painting was made in two halves (the right hand in 1881 the left in 1885) and is therefore a favourite for History of Art teachers trying to show ‘development’.
There is a noticeable change in colour and brushwork here, from the earlier stages of Impressionism to what is often called The Crisis (well amongst those who have to set and write essays about it). That crisis shows itself in the return to darker colours (French Ultramarine as opposed to the lighter Cobalt Blue on the right), creating harder edged form with chiaroscuro as opposed to using colour to make pictorial depth. The band box, sometimes called a hat box, is carried by the girl in the left centre, it was used to fetch and carry small objects around the city (Paris), usually for the Millinery trade. The best text for this by the way is ‘Painting the Difference: Sex and Spectator in Modern Art’ by Charles Harrison
Two Little Birds
We stop at a station, two sparrows are fighting on the platform, small fluttering movements in tight swirling flight patterns. Both try, unsuccessfully, to gain height for advantage, then swoop to fight on the ground.
The composition and the narrative of The Umbrellas pivots around that box. It tells us that she has a purpose; why do we need to know that? This painting is set in Haussmannised Paris (the complete redevelopment of the centre, the first invention of the modern industrial city, a place of elegant boulevards, ostentatious wealth and crowds; of spectacle.) One of the characteristics of new urban life is the removal of the old certainties.
Dress to Impress
Clothing in late 19th Century Paris no longer denotes status, cheap copies of all styles are available, prostitutes wearing versions of haute couture exploit this dissonance. As Harrison points out, many images from the period represent mistaken identity, men warmly greet women they assume are of equivalent status, but then realise they have got it badly wrong. The central girl’s clothes are, as part of Renoir’s developing style perhaps, timeless. Whereas the clothes of the woman on the left, with the umbrella and children, are specific and dateable. Renoir had done something similar with his painting, La Loge, in the Courtauld, contemporary critics were unsure as to the status of the woman in the box (la Loge): cocotte or lady?
The Train Gang
The war for supremacy of the table has entered a new phase of the campaign; the phone call. Loudly calling your PA to check on today’s vital meetings; yes I’m so important that my PA is standing by at 7.30 in the morning. The counter sally is to phone other meetees to check the length of your agenda.
The Girl with the Band Box
There are clues in the Umbrellas, the girl with the band box is bare headed and without gloves. Always indicators of low status, as Manet shows in Bar at the Folies Bergere. Behind Renoir’s girl, a man is leaning up close, is he:
Offering her his umbrella against the rain? His status is clearly high, it is an unlikely offer unless he is confused by the classic nature of her dress. Will that offer end well?
Propositioning her? The band box, as a badge of office, denotes the sort of low paid job taken by country girls come to the city. These girls often resorted to prostitution, barmaids at the Folies Bergeres had much the same reputation.
Saving her? This depends on a reading of the ‘Internal Spectator’, who are we looking at her or, who is she looking at? Are we a female companion, as in for example Morisot’s ‘A Summer’s Day’? Unlikely given our knowledge of Renoir’s character. Are we another predatory man, like the presumed client/ viewer in Manet’s Olympia? Or, are we her rescuer who will save her from the predator?
Renoir was not a subtle painter, nothing about his work or attitude to women leads one to assume any empathy with her plight. For his approach look at the woman and her girls on the right, the earlier painted figures in Cobalt Blue. Contrast the two figures who look directly at the viewer, the girl with the box, mute poor and vulnerable and the sickly sweet overdressed little girl with the hoop and smug smile and all the security that the artists can give her.
Open the Box
Back to the band box, when you look at the painting itself, there are two possible readings, closed or empty.
We see the black shiny cloth cover or, the darkness is the interior, the inner cloth covering the wood from which it is made. Are the marks on the left of the dark space the reflections of her hand and sleeve? Or, are they part of the covered interior? The way that the deeper blue continues up to the right, as though following an interior curve, leads me to assume emptiness. The parallel grey strokes also indicate the flat bottom of the box. On balance, although it is debatable, after looking for some time, I would say that the box is empty. I.e. she is not actually at work at that moment, or is possibly returning from an errand. Funds are therefore likely to be low. The smallest painted space within a space contains no respite for the girl.
The Train Gang
Like a set piece battle, the sort represented in Ucello’s: ‘Battle of San Romano’, we have entered the final skirmishes, the pushing of the laptop lid beyond 90 degrees, moving your machine forward at each jolt of the train; sparrows trying to gain height. At no point do the two protagonists ever make eye contact.
You could, and some viewers have, put forward the notion that the figures around the girl, the bourgeois mother and well-dressed children, are projections of her wished-for future.
In the same way that it is possible to assert that the Gonzaga figure in Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation is creating the scene, can we say that the girl is dreaming a future? A future that could be brought about by the man behind her with the umbrella, or more likely by us the viewer; her look has a sense of appeal in it. A similar scenario that could be constructed out of the reflection in the mirror of Manet’s bar. Whatever the answer, this is a painting about what it was like to be looked at as a young woman in Paris in the later 19th Century, and for that matter what a young Parisian woman looked like. “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” as John Berger wrote in ‘Ways of Seeing’ many years ago.
Back to the Train Gang
The battle next to me has been won; the man on my right is looking smugly into his own virtual space, he is being transported to somewhere else; the future? And where might that be? An exciting Powerpoint about growth forecasts (not great by the look of it). An ostentatiously full future of course, no possibility of mistaking this man for a chancer. At the terminal he will proceed the City, to exert his financial power. Perhaps to demand that the workers whose pensions he lost must take less than the minimum wage, poorer working conditions and ‘flexible working conditions’. FTSE directors pay increased by 55% last year, average pay increase in the UK last year was 0.9%.