An easy order, an ordered easiness

Renoir once told Matisse: ''When I have arranged a bouquet in order to paint it, I go round to the side I have not looked at.'' Matisse liked this remark of the older artist because it emphasized the value of ''unconscious grouping,'' as opposed to ''conscious arrangement.''

Renoir's painting, overall, shows him to have been concerned with both aspects: he seemed apparently casual, intuitive, capturing the unexpectedness and irregularity of nature, but he was also capable of the classically planned and ordered, the composed, the studied art inspired by other, earlier art. It is a typically nineteenth-century duality, particularly in an artist like Renoir, who saw vividly the need to escape the formulas imposed by the stale academic painting theories and practises of the time, but who still had a strong respect for the old masters.

The year he painted La Loge (1874) was also the year of the first independent ''impressionist'' exhibition in Paris, which aroused the ridicule of the conventional public, and was dubbed (among other things) ''an art student's joke.'' ''What shocked people most of all,'' Renoir later told his son Jean, ''was that they could find nothing in our pictures that was reminiscent of the galleries. To learn our craft, you see, we had to place our models in an atmosphere which was familiar to us. Can you see me painting a Nebuchadnezzar at a cafe table, or The Mother of the Gracchi in a box at the opera?''

Certainly the beautiful, and noticeable, young woman seated in the theater box in the Courtauld Institute's picture is about as far as possible from being the matriarch of an illustrious family of ancient Roman tribunes. She is not a ''Salon'' figure at all. She is, in fact, Nini, a Montmartre model, dressed up to the nines. The male companion, which her charming prominence relegates so unashamedly to the background, was modelled by Renoir's brother, Edmond. Nini's impersonation of a fashionable and even ostentatious lady is, as portrayed by Renoir, a joyful celebration of a pretty young girl's pleasure in finery - in transforming herself, like Eliza Doolittle, from flower girl into duchess. She wears her elaborate and richly decorative costume like a queen; yet the artist sees her as entirely natural. She isn't a fashion plate. The free liquidity and liveliness of his brushwork, the flow and curve of figure and dress, seem the epitome of freshness and spontaneity. She has none of the languor and heaviness of Courbet's paintings of girls, and her lightness and almost childlike innocent expression and posture show Renoir's special qualities set free from Courbet's early influence.

The setting of La Loge, apparently so easily chosen, is indeed an ''atmosphere familiar to him.'' Like Degas, he enjoyed the theatre but regarded it rather as he did a vase of flowers: he wanted to look, as it were, at its ''other side'' - the audience.

''They've no right,'' he told his son, ''to shut people up in the dark for three solid hours. It's taking a mean advantage of you. You are forced to look at the only place where there's any light: the stage. It's absolute tryanny. I might want to look at a pretty woman sitting in a box.''

Such a notion was typical of the artist's lighthearted seriousness. The apparent casualness of the subject in La Loge is therefore misleading. It is a completely deliberate picture of something that the artist found far more interesting than the drama or opera itself. And it is perfectly evident that the two people he portrays would agree with him. She seems to look directly at whoever is looking at her, and is thoroughly enjoying being seen and admired. He is training his opera glasses on something or someone in another part of the theatre - but clearly not on stage.

Organization hidden by a disarming ease of style is almost the hallmark of a good Renoir, as it is of a woman's dress. It characterizes the actual execution of this picture, as well as its subject. The relationship of the two figures is unified into a balanced and ingeniously integrated design of black bands in contrast with light blue-grey or soft rose intervals. It is worked out with scrupulous and intuitive care, and then painted with marvellous freedom. The triangular or pyramidal composition provides the necessary equilibrium for a subject alive with quick movements and an interplay of rounded forms. Renoir's awareness of the shallow space and absence of linear perspective in Japanese pictures is evident. Also, he has remembered Goya's paintings of girls on a balcony, with shrouded male figures mysteriously shadowed behind them. But both influences are absorbed into his own original and simple view of art and life. ''I have always tried,'' he said, ''to paint human beings just as I would a beautiful fruit.'' (Or, it might be added, a bouquet of flowers.) La Loge amply, and deliciously, shows what he meant.

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