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Episode 21: Mary Cassatt, In The Loge (1878)

Pop quiz hot shot.  Quick.  Name five women artists.  And not Mary Cassatt because that’s cheating.  Sure, you can do it, eventually.  Georgia O’Keeffe, Frieda Kahlo, and if you’re a little more in the know, Artemisia Gentileschi, Elisabeth LeBrun, if you’re hip, Yoko Ono.  But it’s not easy, is it?  It’s actually uncomfortably hard.  But what if I asked you to name a painting of a woman?  See, that’s easy. Uncomfortably easy.  And this simple fact, that it’s infinitely easier to name a painting of a woman than by a woman, that women are almost always the ones being looked at, and almost never doing the looking, is the root of what art history has called its “woman problem.” Bet you didn’t know art history had a woman problem. In other news, the Pope is still Catholic.

In 1971, the art theorist Linda Nochlin tackled this woman problem in her seminal – and yes, I’m painfully aware of how ironic that word is – text on feminist art theory: Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?  Ignore the deliberately provocative title—the question isn’t asking whether or not women can be great artists, but simply, where are they?  Never even mind if they’re “great”, the plain truth is that when we talk about women artists, we just have very few to choose from.  And the reason for this, she argues, is less individual than it is institutional – it’s not the individual women falling behind, but the institutions they live within that are holding them back.  Yet because there are so few woman artists, we tend to lump the individuals together, like they're a cloistered, subjugated sisterhood stretching a lady baton across centuries, as though connected, Nochlin writes sarcastically, by a “subtle essence of femininity.”  But they of course aren’t. 

On the contrary, she argues, women artists, just like man artists, have far less to do with each other than with their own contexts.  Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi and Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner were influenced by and engaged with the people around them, the art of their cultural moments, the movements that came before that they were responding to.  Context is everything; Nochlin even opens the article by talking about how she wouldn’t have written it in the first place if she herself weren’t living through a feminist revolution.  And the reality is that most of the time, and for most of artist-centric Western art history, the context just hasn’t been very kind to women.  Or, as Nochlin puts more bluntly, “the arts are oppressive and discouraging to those who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class, and above all, male.”  And she continues, awesomely, “he fault lies not in our stars, our menstrual cycles, but in our institutions and our education – education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs, and signals.”  And this was before Tumblr.

In other words, the crux of Nochlin’s argument is not that there have been no great women artists because women just aren’t as talented as men, but that they've been restricted from the same opportunities, and are penalized for it, by history, even by us just in how we talk about them.  Because we don’t talk about women artists and man artists, we talk about women artists and artists, which gets to the very heart of the problem.  If women artists were seen as artists in their own contexts, they would be evaluated by their own contexts, their own cohorts, their own critics.  But they weren’t given the opportunity to excel within these contexts, and so instead, they’re evaluated alongside one another.  Which, if you’ve ever held up a Gentileschi alongside Krasner, is ridiculous.  And it’s basically saying, hey ladies, it’s not enough to keep pace with your own contemporaries, and your own context – you need to transcend it, grab that lady baton, and become a part of history to even get noticed.

So now, let’s put theory aside for a moment and focus, specifically, on institutions restricting women from what their male counterparts could access, because welcome to Impressionist Paris.  The reason why there are only two female impressionists, Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, alongside a boatload of male ones is not a question of talent, believe me.  And it's not a coincidence that women were painting indoor domestic scenes of mothers and children while men painted prostitutes at cafés.  Impressionism was about capturing modern life, particularly modern life outdoors, and there were many outdoor places that a woman just wasn't able to go to un-chaperoned.  Except the opera.

For Cassatt to have picked the opera as the location for this radical, nuanced painting is nothing short of genius. The opera is pretty much the perfect place to address art history’s woman problem, because it was the one place where a woman was liberated enough from institutional restrictions to be able to actually give the act of looking as good as she gets it.  And though up to this point we’ve only been focusing on the lack of woman artists part of the woman problem, not the countless paintings of women by men part, the 19th century Parisian opera house is where both parts come together.  Bust out your opera glasses: this is a painting about looking and being looked at, a painting that breaks down the traditional barriers between the observer and the observed, between audience and performance, between subject and object.  And at the opera, a woman could be any of them.

So let’s talk about the opera.  The opera in Impressionist Paris was an egalitarian bourgeoisie fashion show, the place to see and be seen.  Anybody who was anybody was there, peering into their opera glasses, parading their outfits, gossiping behind their fans.  Sure, there may have been a performance onstage, but the real drama was unfolding in the lobbies, the salons, the intermissions where an enormous chandelier was lowered from the ceiling, illuminating the audience, all the better to look at one another. And this happens to be the point, intermission, when we enter this painting.  And our performance is not what’s on stage, but the spectators. 

All of this looking is greatly helped along by the architecture.  Remember back in episode 7 when we looked at Monet and spent a good chunk of time talking about Haussmannization, the splendid and traumatic renovation of Paris in the 1850s that tore down the tight alleys and opened the city up into uniform apartment buildings, broad boulevards, and, if you’ll recall, long and deliberate sightlines.  If, like me, you’ve ever stood at the Place de la Concord and looked out at the Arch de Triumph and thought to yourself, “heck, that doesn’t look so far away, I’ll walk,” then you, like I was, would be in for a rude awakening as to how deceptive those sightlines are.  Haussmann’s Paris became both a city of light and a city of looking, of being able to take in the vista in one magnificent glance.  And the opera house—or the Palais Garnier, named for its architect, Charles Garnier—was built between 1861 and 1875 as a glorious focal point for one of those glances.  The building itself was a product of a growing middle class, of an industrialized city that housed department stores and fashion plates and flaneurs, or a particular brand of middle-class male dandies who took to the streets to observe.  The word doesn’t quite translate from the French, but picture the poet Charles Baudelaire with a teeny leather notebook and an ascot sipping some absinthe at an outdoor café and you’ll pick up what I’m putting down.  Department stores meant that anyone with means could buy the same outfit and then go to the opera to determine who wore it better.  And once inside, the sweeping grand staircase became a stage all its own, with fashionable couples ascending and descending, and plenty of hidden spots to step back and watch. 

Which brings us back to the loge, or the private box suite inside the theater, from which our central heroine looks out.  Like I said, we can tell it’s intermission from the warm, bright light illuminating the figures, which therefore changes the meaning of everyone pulling out their opera glasses – they’re looking at each other, not the stage.  The woman we see isn’t the typical occupant of a loge, which was a fairly common subject matter during this period.  Plenty of depictions of women had been painted sitting in these plush red velvet seats.  But nothing like we see here.  This woman has any number of signifiers that tell us she’s not playing the traditional role of the object gazed upon by your opera glasses. While the women in the background are mere blips of paint, unarticulated and undifferentiated in their pastels, she’s detailed and specific, dressed in a fashionable but demure black outfit that you can’t imagine would have attracted much attention—some viewers even suggested she was a widow, a woman alone dressed in black. 

And then there’s that fan.  A fan for the Parisian socialite would have been an understood proxy for her voice, her unspoken language, coquettishly covering her mouth and fluttering with meaning and murmurs.  Yet she holds her fan closed and down by her side, unused and unnecessary, or maybe like a weapon ready to strike.  And most significantly, of course, she’s the one holding the opera glasses.  She’s in full ownership of her own gaze, the female flaneur if we dare to be so bold, actively leaning forward to peer at something beyond our view.  Unlike most paintings of woman throughout art history, it's not her very presence that’s the narrative here, but her action.  Think about how radical that is.  She’s a woman, and yet she’s not acknowledging anyone, not flirting, and decidedly not on display.  Or…is she?

Well, it was fun while it lasted.  Because of course she is.  If you look closely just past her hand, you’ll see a distinguished, graying gentleman with his own opera glasses set directly on her.  And he’s putting some effort into it, elbow propped up on the railing, settling in for a better view, and ignoring his own companion to do so.  Our heroine, our powerful, independent subject, is still the object of someone else’s gaze.  And not just his, but ours too.  We’re not exactly getting a pass here, because, as we’ve discussed in past episodes, in so much of modern art, the viewer is an active participant, stepping into the painting in some way, being acknowledged or ignored, but almost always engaging with the subject like we actually exist in their world.  Here, we could be sitting next to her in the loge, watching her watch someone else, or we could even be seeing her through our own opera glasses.  The point is, her objectification is inescapable.  Which is a bummer, because it felt like, for a minute, Cassatt was striking a major feminist blow.

But instead, thanks to us, and to that creeper in the background, it doesn't really feel like this painting is that different from more traditional paintings of loge-dwellers: the woman on display, the woman as the performance, an object seen through opera glasses.  There were so many paintings like this.  Renoir’s “La Loge” from 1874, for example, depicts a woman sitting like a doll in her black and white striped fashionable dress, making welcoming eye contact with the viewer, and ignored by her companion, who has his glasses fixed on someone else.  Even Cassatt had tackled this before in “Woman with a Pearl Necklace in the Loge” from 1879.  The woman depicted is actually her sister, Lydia, sitting in a beautiful pink dress, there to be admired and adored, with her décolletage in full, inviting display and her fan flopping, sitting against a mirror that reflects herself and the audience that objectifies her.  But this painting had the potential to be so wonderfully, powerfully feminist, to take back the female gaze, and to solidify Cassatt as the preeminent great woman artist.  Why did she blow it by adding that man and his binoculars?

But see, now we’re doing it, that thing that Linda Nochlin accused us of doing, back at the beginning of the episode.  That thing where we take women out of their contexts.  Cassatt is making a statement about women, but woman in Impressionist Paris, at the opera, where everyone is looking at everyone.  It would be a bit of a stretch on our part to assume that she was addressing the woman problem, where women so rarely hold the opera glasses and are almost always seen through them – that’s looking at her through Nochlin’s 1970s feminist art theory filter.  On the contrary, it would be unrealistic to assume that Mary Cassatt was in the position to so intentionally smash the patriarchy.  Consider her context: when this painting was shipped to the United States for an exhibition, which was an enormous coup for her, the highest praise it was given was that it “surpassed the strength of most men.”  This ridiculous yardstick, to our ears, was, for a woman artist at the time, epic praise.  This was the society she was living in, these were here institutional constraints, and remember, context is everything.

But even if solving art history’s woman problem wasn’t Cassatt’s overt aim, we have to concede that she calls it out.  It’s simple, and it’s powerful.  A woman artist, who knows a thing or two about being looked at, paints a woman looking, and being looked at.  And though we’ve already established that it’s a little odious to compare women artists to each other, it’s kind of uncanny how many women artists have followed suit, and have reclaimed the gaze just by calling attention to it.  Consider Barbara Kruger’s Untitled Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face from 1981, which is written in aggressive strips as though spat from a label maker across a black and white photograph of a serene stone Venus.  Consider Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece from 1964, where she sits on a stage, invites people from the audience one at a time to cut off her clothing, while the crowd watches.  Consider the Guerilla Girls, a troop of feminist artists in gorilla masks who formed in the 1980s and are still going strong, and their use of cold hard stats to point out the lopsided museum world is: in any given museum, there are this many female artists vs. male artists, and that many paintings of woman vs. paintings of men, draw your own conclusions about how life must be for a woman artist.  All of these artists ask us to look at ourselves looking at women, which really asks us to take a good look inward.  To draw our own conclusions.  And maybe the fact that so many women artists have made art like this is its own kind of lady baton.  Maybe there is a “subtle essence of femininity” that unites women artists across generations, because they’ve all been suffering under the same institutions, even in their own contexts.  Just a thought.

And okay, bear with me, because I want to throw one more little theory out there.  What if we also considered that Mary Cassatt owes her fame, partly, to the fact that she is a woman?  Specifically, a feisty, unmarried American woman.  If you’ve never noticed that museums and art historical literature always, always refer to her as American, then you will now.  She was a Philadelphia-born ex-pat who moved to Paris as an art student, evidently because American schools were too prudish to let her draw from live nude models, and established a career alongside her European-born cohort, and basically never left.  And sure, she was born in the States, but she’s as much a French impressionist as Monet and Renoir, and was even invited to exhibit with the group by Degas.  In other words, she was not an American painter, much less an American Impressionist, which came later and was a different movement altogether.  But it seems that because she’s a woman, she’s that brassy American, that unsinkable Mary Cassatt.  I mean, John Singer Sargent was also an American expat who settled in Paris, but it’s not nearly as compelling a part of his narrative as hers: that woman painter who held her own in a boys club, and who painted her allotted subject matters – women and children, opera loges – with defiant feminist subtext because as a loud, uncouth American woman, she can do that kind of thing and get away with it.

But look, the thing about subtext is it isn’t loud.  It’s subtle, and nuanced, and sophisticated, and in the hands of Mary Cassatt, it’s also handled with exquisite technical skill.  In this painting, Cassatt isn’t making any declarative statements, or guilt-tripping anyone.  She asks you to draw your own conclusions.  And that’s a very, very hard thing to pull off.  It’s exceedingly difficult to paint your own moment with piercing acuity, and also put your finger bang on a larger issue like art history’s woman problem.  To contribute a painting to the canon that acts as the perfect springboard for this entire discussion 150 years before it happens.  And this nuance, this skill, this specificity and this finger on the pulse of art history is what, ironically, makes her a great woman artist.  Or, as she really ought to be called, an artist.