A study in sexual politics

Experts at the National Gallery have subjected Renoir's famous Les Parapluies (Umbrellas) to the very latest high-tech scrutiny. And what did they discover? Political correctness, reports David Lister

Was the painting reproduced here the world's first politically correct picture? Yes, says the head of the National Gallery. New X-rays of Renoir's masterpiece, Les Parapluies, show that the artist altered his own work in order to highlight a case of sexual harassment in an otherwise ordinary street scene.

The National Gallery's scientific department and conservation studio have X-rayed Renoir's Les Parapluies, and magnified by 250 times paint particles scraped from the canvas, to make a detailed study of its genesis.

The results confirm that what started out as a portrait of fashionable Parisian life became, at least partly, a study in sexual politics.

Over the five years during which Renoir reworked the canvas, the woman on the left of the picture was dressed down to make her appear more working- class, more vulnerable. The man behind her, who is vaguely preoccupied with himself in the first version of the picture, is clearly occupied with her in the second. And she now looks decidedly uncomfortable, as she senses his stare burning into her back.

Neil MacGregor, director of the National Gallery, will discuss Renoir's painting and the gallery's detective work on it in the first of a new series, Making Masterpieces, beginning on BBC2 this Monday.

In the course of the six-part series, MacGregor will explore the relationship between artists and their materials, showing how X-ray, infra-red and other diagnostic tools have revolutionised research into how the gallery's great works were actually made, and how they can be better preserved.

The work in the scientific and conservation departments shows that Renoir's Les Parapluies was painted over two distinct periods, during 1880 and in 1885.

As MacGregor says, "The women on the right of the painting are dressed in the smart high fashion of about 1880, but the woman on the left has been made to wear a simpler, more severe style... In taking away her hat and lace collar, and in dressing her in a simpler, old-fashioned way, Renoir has not only altered her appearance, he has also changed her class. Instead of showing a well-heeled bourgeoise like the women on the right, he painted an altogether poorer, more vulnerable young woman. She is possibly a shopworker, judging by the box she is carrying, and should therefore perhaps be more careful not to respond to the rather doubtful attentions of the man behind her."

MacGregor adds: "The second version of the picture therefore presents a more complex view of urban life and reveals tensions that are almost as much social as artistic. Is this the first politically correct painting? It may well be."

According to Martin Wyld, chief restorer at the National Gallery, the woman in Renoir's original version was wearing a ruffle collar and white hat, or veil, which the artist then removed "to make her look more vulnerable".

"In the early version," he adds, "she had a different expression, with her mouth slightly open, possibly happier."

Kim Evans, head of BBC music and arts, who commissioned Making Masterpieces, was in the National Gallery's conservation department with me when Neil MacGregor displayed the finished and X-rayed versions side by side.

Her comment: "Any woman will see that the woman in the painting is uncomfortable because of the man behind her."

`Making Masterpieces' begins on BBC2 at 7.30pm on Monday

News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

    Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

    Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

    Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015