Fairy tale motifs like Cinderellas, wealthy Prince Charmings and beasts with hearts of gold underneath forbidding exteriors are very much alive in modern adult literature and films, as a drama reviewer helpfully pointed out. The titular pretty princess of She Was Pretty gets the raw end of the stick, however, when she grows up into a penniless ugly duckling, while her tubby childhood sweetheart transforms into a handsome and successful man looking like he has stepped out of a fashion magazine. Whereas he used to be the awkward, bespectacled child scuttering away at the appearance of the next-door belle, she is now the one hiding out of his sight and looking on in sadness as he embraces her ravishing bosom friend, whom he believes is her. In her reality, she thinks, she is just a supporting character, perhaps an almost invisible extra.
He, on the other hand, feels that the degree to which a person basks in the limelight does not cement his/her status as a main or supporting character. A change of perspective may reveal that the narrative is really about the emotions or personal development of someone lurking in the shadows. In Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Dance in the Country (1883), the central figure may not be the beaming, flamboyant woman whose bright red bonnet, floral details and voluminous dress draws attention to herself, or her dapper dance partner. It may very well be the woman watching outside the terrace where they are dancing, the railing of the terrace and tree leaves framing her face to the effect that she looks trapped in a neglected forest prison. Like the star-crossed lovers, the screenwriter Jo Sung-hee postulates, she is harboring a secret love for someone. Jo has her male lead entrust a jigsaw piece with the lovelorn woman to the female lead at their last childhood meeting, while he keeps the remaining puzzle of the painting. How she will find her way back to the picture and into the hole in his heart is the focus of the story.
Renoir’s masterpiece does not stay static while it waits for its admirers. The swoosh of the dress’s large, multipleated hem conveys its wearer’s magnificent movements. The creases around the male dancer’s waist, knees and thighs, along with his ruffled hair, lend dynamism on his side. The couple’s postures suggest that they are whirling around, and with such spontaneous ecstasy that she dances with an open fan held up high, he disregards the hat dropped onto the floor and their dinner table stays in a mess. This sense of flux, it goes without saying, is augmented by the impressionistic smudgy brushwork.
Zigzagging on the canvas are the characters’ lines of sight. Like some painters, Renoir sometimes has a tendency of making his subjects look in different directions even when they are interacting with one another, an arrangement visible in works like Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881), Oarsmen at Chatou (1879) and The Swing (1876). In Dance in the Country, the woman outside the terrace gazes at the man from afar, who peers closely into his dance partner’s face. Her gleaming eyes, however, are fixed on the artist outside the painting.
Yet this is not some real-life love polygon. The dancing woman is often identified as Renoir’s lover and future wife, Aline Charigot. The man is his friend, Paul Lhôte. Besides, Renoir’s belief was that paintings should be pleasant, joyous and lovely. He saw no need to add to the mountain of woes that life could produce. In the 21st century, unfortunately, this philosophy does not always make for profound aesthetic experiences. Art critic Ariella Budick observed that modern-age audiences, raised on a diet of gritty romanticism, view artworks with syrupy qualities with contempt. Similarly, Alastair Smart, the arts editor of the Sunday Telegraph, noted that the unreservedly cheerful tones of Renoir’s art pieces attract him criticism for his lack of intellectual depth.
Dance in the Country probably appears more mysteriously enchanting under the romantic atmosphere of the drama, which gives it a light touch of pathos. Alone in his Manhattan apartment one rainy night, the story’s hero assembles the jigsaw, his fingers lingering longingly at the gap where the piece that serves as his love token and farewell gift is supposed to be. He gifts the woman he thinks is his childhood sweetheart an umbrella from an art gallery shop and she passes it on to the heroine. By a strange stroke of luck, the heroine becomes his subordinate and, while leaving the office building one rainy evening, unthinkingly opens the umbrella in front of him. Renoir’s painting, reproduced on the inner side of the umbrella, then blooms open like a flower before his eyes. Startled, he calls after her but later changes his mind and turns his own way. She realizes her mistake and looks back, disappointed to see that he does not think a connection is possible. What she does not know is that, as she moves on again, he silently turns to have one more look at her.
However, while he reacquaints himself with her now shabby shell, and she with the harsher psychological layers in him she would not have seen as the girl he treats with affection, there is also much for the contemporary viewer to reacquaint with in Renoir’s dance painting. Judged on its own terms, without regard to reality and the artist’s intentions (i.e. viewing it as possessing a life of its own), the artwork may actually work as a depiction of an imaginary three-sided romance, such that Jo’s interpretation can be perfectly correct. A more radical interpretation that may align better with Renoir’s positive belief, on the other hand, is this: Lhôte was merely a stand-in for Renoir, who probably found it inconvenient to model for himself here, and so was the hidden woman—a camouflaged expression of Renoir’s wish to be in Lhôte’s place. And thus, everyone around the female dancer—the man, the hidden woman and the artist the dancer is looking at—is a manifestation of Renoir and his ardent love for her.
Moreover, in today’s world, where the ultra-thin body ideal permeates fashion pages, Renoir’s glowing portrayal of his plump lover takes on added significance. In fact, almost everything about her constitutes a sea of pure, white radiance over which rose motifs are liberally scattered. On her face, especially, he brought out not only her bright eyes but also a pearly smile from which a soft but luminous glow seems to spread over her full, rosy cheeks. It is a much-needed affirmation that women on the heavy side can be immensely beautiful and attractive in character. To those who do not meet conventional standards of beauty in general—and do not watch the drama—it is simultaneously a beacon of hope that even if the rest of the world regards them as extras, a special someone will see her closely enough for the worthy leading lady she is. From this viewpoint, they are the true leading ladies of the painting.
That said, across much of Renoir’s oeuvre, the only consistent lead character is perhaps fashion, a topic long in need of serious attention from the philosophical world. It seems fitting that a drama set in a fashion magazine’s office (the two leads’ workplace) references an artist who took great pains to hunt down the right garments for his works and fleshed them out on the canvas with meticulous care. Yet philosophers tend to dismiss fashion as a trivial matter of vanity and social conformity. Renoir did not help by giving the clothes more personality than the subjects, except, perhaps, in cases like Aline’s.
Despite his imperfection, it may not be totally fair to sniff at Renoir’s passion for fashion. Clothes wearing is a social activity not only insofar as it is molded by social pressure and herd mentality but also in terms of how it sustains and reflects emotional bonds. The desire to be someone worthy of another’s love is reflected in the drama’s alternating hiding admirers premise, and the wardrobe is sometimes but a simple means of upholding personal values, be it opting for unpretentiousness through casual polos and bermudas or breaking out of one’s mold through fancier dress styles. The umbrella gift subplot, too, is emblematic of how fashion accessories can carry profound stories and meanings only parties in a gift exchange are privy to. For Renoir, there might have been additional sentimental value from the very act of exploring fashion. Aline, his mother and mother-in-law were all seamstresses; his father was a tailor. Whether these were actually on Renoir’s mind may be debatable, but the potential for art like his to be rooted in romantic and familial love is arguably there.
Love can come in many layers. Its depth may be immeasurable and its seeds lying in nooks and crannies, yet those affected by it are sometimes capable of expressing only so much. Depending on the frame of analysis, the protagonist(s) of a picture may be in the foreground, background, audience, the artist or his supporters. If a piece of joyous work appears simplistic, the fault may lie in its creator not delving into or displaying clearer hints of the multifaceted and intricate ways happiness develops. It should not automatically be that he has failed to add some unbearable or non-existent negativity as a condiment. The next time a scholarly commentary adopts a caustic tone or a drama ends on a bitter note for the mere sake of appearing sophisticated, Renoir’s hidden woman and other unseen characters around the painting will make the author rethink the meaning of sophistication.