In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’ll share my all-time favorite couples painting ever: Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La Danse á Bougival (French, 1883, oil on canvas; at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston). I absolutely adore the Impressionists (les impressionistes) and have an even greater love for them after seeing some of their greatest works on display in Paris.
Of course, this painting can be seen at the MFA in Boston (my “home” museum), and is one for lovers everywhere. In fact, when I imagine what kind of relationship I want in my life (ideally, a while from now), this image is what instantly comes to my head – it is perfection. “Bougival” was a suburban town outside of Paris, on the banks of the Seine, where people passed leisurely time dancing and eating at cafés – a place that the Impressionists would have spent much time.
Renoir and the Impressionists were a group of painters that worked during the mid to late nineteenth century, primarily in France (although the Germans had a similar movement, Expressionism), with the exception of Mary Cassat, an American who is widely known as a great Impressionist painter, and one of only a few women who became known as “Impressionistes” (she did spend most of her life in Paris). This movement was a direct result of French society at the time: as Baron Haussmann re-designed the entire City of Lights, creating order out of what was once medieval chaos, Paris became the spot to see and be seen – the place to leave an impression. What grew out of this was the Impressionist movement: they were concerned not with miniscule details, but with what instantly caught your eye. Up close, many of their paintings seem like a jungle of textured and unintentional brush strokes, but from afar, your eye catches that one moment that they want you to see. The Impressionists also seem to be saying something about their new city, juxtaposing the new order and symmetry of Paris against the softer colors and whirling strokes of their artwork. These artists were the first to break from réalisme – realism, which strove to depict everything just as it was in real life, but in reality idealized many of its subjects. They brought to the world a truly innovative perspective, and some of the most iconic pieces of all time (think Starry Night).
What I love about this painting in particular is the interaction between the man and the woman, and the way that Renoir presents them to us. Our eye is immediately drawn to the woman, using her bright red bonnet as a personal frame for her face. He creates a space using her white-clothed arm against his dark suit in which their faces sit, his mostly covered by a hat and hers gazing furtively downwards, a subtle smile playing on her lips. It is significant that the man’s face is obscured: Renoir wants us to focus on her, just like her partner is.
Her red bonnet and white dress stand out starkly against the darker background, and even against his navy suit, which almost blends in to the scene behind them. I love that these two are the exact opposites of each other, and they fit together almost like puzzle pieces: her head looks out, while his looks in at her; her arm reaches out, while his pulls in to hold her hand there; her body leans forward into his, and he presses his body into hers; her skirt sways outward as they dance, and his foot comes forward. The artist creates the most beautiful tension, a sort of sexiness that pulls us in to this moment. And Renoir masterfully creates this swirling feeling, like she is being whooshed, and we get a true sense of movement as our eye travels up and down their bodies. I have always wondered, too, whether there was any significance to the two trees that extend up out of the painting, just above their heads – it seems to help ground them, or perhaps suggest that these two lovers are as deeply rooted to one another as the two trees behind them.
This painting used to hang in our old house, and when we moved it got tossed into the basement. While I was home recently, I resurrected it and hung it on my wall, and literally could not stop staring at it for the entire month I was at home. I am just so drawn to the colors, the movement, the interaction between them, I suppose because I’m pretty sure that this is all I could ask for in life – my perfect opposite dancing the night away with me on the banks of the Seine.
Happy Valentine’s Day ❤