We know that Forain was very interested in the opera and theatre - especially the relationships between people who worked there and their admirers. If I'd never seen this picture before how would you describe it to me?
Well, it's what I would call a study, and studies have that lovely sort of immediacy - is that the right word? Personally what I find as a painter is that a study is often better than the finished version, because in that case you know more people are going to see it, so you get hung up on trying to make everything perfect and it sometimes starts to look a bit laboured - you're just using the brush too much. You can't just make a stroke and leave it - you keep going back to it. I also like the group of three main figures - because I often do that in my paintings. The number three is a bit tricky to deal with.
Why do you say that?
Well, in my work, by having the extra person there it leads the viewer to become suspicious. Perhaps first of all you see a couple - they're standing together, you're drawn to them and then you just notice the shadow of another man, and it suddenly takes on a completely different meaning. Forain’s drawing is different of course - and the three are right in your face.
And their relationships?
I've looked at this work many times and would say that the discussion between the woman on the stage and the balding man might be about technical matters.
Perhaps he's the director of the show?
Yes, but her body language - leaning away from him - suggests that she's not attracted to him. Can you see how her knees and toes are also held together? But for the guy with the top hat it's definitely one of two things - he's either interested in her, or he's got money involved in this and he's looking carefully over the director’s shoulder to make sure that this show is going to be a success.
I personally would go down the route of him being interested in her because that's more my cup of tea! So let's imagine he's trying to look involved, but really he’s just wanting to get a bit closer to her and let her see the kind of power that he has.
And their relationship from his point of view is ....?
I don't think it’s anything yet - potentially there might be - but I get the feeling that it would be a casting-couch kind of relationship because there's nothing in her posture to suggest that she likes him either. Everything to me suggests that she doesn't want to get physically close.
Seeing this picture reminds me how a lot of actresses must have done sexual favours to get on, and probably there was a fairly strong link between brothels and the theatre, and perhaps not an unhealthy one either! Of course there were some terrible brothels, but the ones you see painted or illustrated from the period seem terribly civilised - the men sitting around in their finery, the women not yet undressed, and the Madame running it just like a kind of pretty good club. Not seedy at all. I've been in a position where I was able to sit in a place similar to that - It was a sauna and no, I wasn't a customer - I was there for research purposes, believe me! But it was fascinating just to see the men come in with their towels on and sit and chat to the girls. I was fascinated by the quality of conversation because all that they're really doing is assessing each other - they'll talk about football - or talk about anything just to break down the barriers before the guy just nods to one of the girls, "Right, I've chosen you ....", and off they go.
Perhaps that's what the man in the top hat is doing here?