A study in sexual politics

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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