A study in sexual politics
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Thursday 16 October 1997
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
Today in the Premier League, Everton face Manchester United, and Arsenal take on Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium. A victory for Jose Mourinho's side, and they could win the Premier League title as soon as Wednesday with a win over Leicester.
Life & Style blogs
Surgeon backs 'good death' plans - and reveals his own
Britain's kitchens so filthy that they present a health risk, says new research
NHS hit by stealth cuts of £2bn as tariffs received for medical procedures are reduced
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter
KickassTorrents down: new Isle of Man domain taken offline just hours after launch
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove
- 1 I've been called an abusive and dangerous parent, when all I did was listen to my transgender child
- 2 Smartphones are making children borderline autistic, says psychiatrist
- 3 Why this father didn’t hide his daughter’s heroin overdose in her obituary
- 4 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 5 Teaching profession headed for crisis as numbers continue to drop and working lives become 'unbearable'
£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...
£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...
£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...
£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...