Mary Cassatt, Woman in Black at the Opera, 1879

4 Sep

In late nineteenth century Paris, everyone went to the Opera. It was the place to see and be seen. Women, knowing they were there to be looked at, would wear lots of jewelry and dresses that showed the appropriate amount of skin. Men would wear black to disappear within the loge (opera box) so they could look without being seen. The view of the stage from a loge was actually not very good because people came to look at each other and often ignored the performance completely. Because the Opera was a symbol of Modernity, it became the subject of a number of Impressionist paintings. The Opera was an important space for women artists like Mary Cassatt because they were able to gain access to this space whereas other public areas were unavailable to them.

Most loge paintings offer up the woman’s body as a spectacle; all dressed up to be gazed at by male eyes. Their gaze is non-confrontational, passive and serene, allowing the viewer complete access to look upon her. Cassatt’s Woman in Black at the Opera is a different take on the typical representation of women in the loge. Viewed in profile, the woman looks intently and severely through opera glasses at the stage. Her body is not offered up as the viewer cannot see her form underneath her black dress and there is no skin visible. Because she is represented in profile and holds the glasses to her face, the viewer cannot get a good look at her. Instead of gracefully displaying her fan, she holds it sternly and wields it like a weapon. She is here to see the play and wants to be left alone. Behind her, men and women are using their opera glasses to gaze at one another. To poke fun at the role of the man at the opera, Cassatt has a man leaning far over the balcony, comically staring at the woman in black through his glasses.


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