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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
News
people
Sport
Diego Costa, Ross Barkley, Arsene Wenger, Brendan Rodgers, Alan Pardew and Christian Eriksen
footballRodgers is right to be looking over his shoulder, while something must be done about diving
Life and Style
gaming
Arts and Entertainment
Carl Barat and Pete Dohrety in an image from the forthcoming Libertines short film
filmsPete Doherty and Carl Barat are busy working on songs for a third album
Arts and Entertainment
films
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

    Austen Lloyd: Commercial Solicitor - Leicester

    Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: LEICESTER - SENIOR COMMERCIAL SOLICITOR- An o...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer - 1st Line

    £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support organisation focuses on ...

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst (Windows, Active Directory) - London £26k

    £26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Support Analyst / IT Support Analys...

    Ashdown Group: PR, Marketing & Events Executive - Southwark, London - £35,000

    £30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: PR Marketing & Events Exe...

    Day In a Page

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible