This work is one of the seven that Renoir showed at the First Impressionist Exhibition of 1874 and is one of his early masterpieces. Showing
a box at the theater, the two models were Renoir's brother, Edmond, and the model Nini (peculiarly nicknamed 'Gueule de Raie', or 'Fish Face'). The
subject recurs in Renoir's oeuvre as well as that of Degas and Cassatt. It had also been treated by earlier
artists, such a Daumier, and had appeared in popular caricatures. The choice of a box rather than some other part of the theatre is perhaps due to
the framed space that this provided the artist. It is essentially the modern subject that connects the work to Impressionism, as in respect of its
execution it bears closer affinities with the work of such earlier paintets as Watteau or Rubens than with that of the Impressionists.
The treatment of the sumptuous fabrics of the woman's dress and her skin as well as the modelling and polished brushwork are remarkable feats of painting. In the contemporary society the theater box was an arena for exhibition, where the women were on display (hence seated forward) and formed part of the public image of their male escort. In this picture the man looks up, not at the stage, but at other boxes to see who else is present and with whom.
The critics of the First Impressionist Exhibition devoted much space to this work, and their comments were largely favorable, in contrast to those on most other works. There were differing interpretations of the status of the woman (which Renoir leaves open), who was variously described as an elegant society lady or as a suspect cocotte. Though the work was well received critically it did not sell for the asking price of 500 francs and later entered the collection of Pete Martin for 425 francs.