La Conversation takes place in a well-appointed interior, furnished with white painted chairs in the Louis XVI style, a rococo carved gilt wood console table and mirror in the Louis XV style (in which the woman is beautifully reflected). The walls appear to be part of a Louis XV carved, parcel-gilt and white-painted boiserie, similar to the salon ovale de la princesse at the Hôtel de Soubise in Paris. The couple are in evening costume, either having just returned from a ball or party, or about to go to one. Béraud is a master of subtle gestures and he has carefully rendered them here. With his hands grasping the back of the chair with intention, the man tilts back, somewhat awkwardly, perhaps in nervous anticipation. He cranes his head forward as if awaiting a response to his proposition as his companion looks down introspectively. Standing in her extraordinary cornflower blue gown, with a low bustle silhouette, wasp waist, peplum with basques and flounces on her skirt, the position of her hands holding an open fan may reveal a clue to her response.
With the balcony doors flung wide open, Béraud deliberately brings the humming street scene into the apartment. Carriages and café tables, lit by many streetlamps and lanterns, seem to be as integral to the scene as the lamps on the console table. In the neighboring apartments beyond, illuminated windows frame figures in silhouette, suggesting the constant activity and drama of living in the city of light.
Like many of his Impressionist contemporaries, Béraud was interested in the city’s increasingly blurred boundaries of public and private, and the balcony had become emblematic of a shift towards ambiguity. A ubiquitous architectural feature of the apartments in Haussmann’s Paris, the balcony was an extension of the home as well as a connection to the street, simultaneously inside and outside (David Van Zanten, “Looking Through, Across and Up, The architectural aesthetics of the Paris Street,” Impressionism, Fashion, Modernity, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum, New York, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 2012, p. 154-8). The space was a potent device for artists, notably employed by Édouard Manet in Le Balcon (1868-9, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, fig. 1) in which he depicts the artist Berthe Morisot, wearing a relaxed dress that suggests an intimate gathering, and violinist Fanny Claus, who is dressed to be out walking with gloves and parasol. Similarly, Gustave Caillebotte punctures interior boundaries in his painting, Interior, Woman at a Window (1880, Private Collection) depicting a woman dressed for a promenade and turned away from the viewer, looking through the closed door of her balcony towards the street.
The previous owner of La Conversation was the legendary American collector, Margaret Thompson Biddle. Upon her death, the Galerie Charpentier in Paris offered a portion of her extraordinary art collection, including masterpieces by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne and a still life by Paul Gauguin which sold for three times its estimate and is widely credited for launching the secondary market for Impressionist art. The catalogue’s introduction was written by the renowned French politician André Cornu, and he rightly described Mrs. Thompson Biddle as an heiress, ambassadress, elegant hostess, and friend to all, a woman of great heart, charm, intelligence and beauty, American by birth, French in spirit.
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