Episode 21: Mary Cassatt, In The Loge (1878)
VOICE 1: We’re at the… opera. But we’re not really watching the opera, we’re watching… a woman who’s watching someone who’s being watched…
VOICE 2: She’s leaning forward and she has, probably a nineteenth century sort of binocular, uh, to her face. So… she’s very keen on what, what she’s looking at.
When we look at this painting our gaze is drawn to her gaze
VOICE 3: There’s something of like a sea captain in her, because she’s so intent on the horizon, you know? And she’s so giving a direction, right? She’s like “for-, Onward!” You can almost imagine her on a communist poster.
VOICE 3: But for the bourgeoisie. [laughs]
VOICE 4: I feel like I’ve been in her position before, when I look at this. Um, I love to attend theaters and operas and I have my own little, like, set of binoculars I take with me.
VOICE 5: Everyone loves some people watching. I’ll admit, I’ve sat just like these people with my opera glasses, looking around, you know, at the Boston Opera House or some other, um, theaters in the city just looking at people.
VOICE 6: It just cracks me up, because there’s a guy looking at her in the back there, right? And he has binoculars just staring at her.
VOICE 7: The gentleman in the back is very interested in her. I wonder if he’s going to go over to her box, present himself.
VOICE 6: And that also puts me in her position, ‘cause that has happened as well, you know. You’re, you’re looking at other things and you just look over and see someone just staring at you. And that’s just part of life, I guess…
VOICE 8: But that the way that he’s like very casually, his arm is up, almost around his companion, and yet he’s staring out, you know, almost staring at us. And so, is he observing us or is he observing her?
TAMAR: Does it make any difference to you that this was painted by a woman?
VOICE 7: Perhaps is some kind of ,uhh, a greater sympathy with the person she’s painting. I mean, she’s not there to… capture the subject, but she’s there with a subject. More there as some kind of ally against uh, assault of uh, um…
VOICE 8: Yeah or, as you said, against all these men, who are staring at us, and we are uh… good proper ladies.
VOICE 8: I mean she is… the artist is the woman, the woman is the artist, I think. I think it’s allegorical then if you tell me it’s painted by a woman.
VOICE 7: She’s, she’s not young, not old, she’s sort of caught in between. She, she doesn’t have these, these kind of very specific roles. She’s not uh, uh, virgin, she’s not a young mother, she’s… not an old crone either.
VOICE 8: You know, maybe she’s an independent lady heading out on the town on her own, and that she’s, she’s just there, for herself. She’s not there to please anybody, you know, yeah. She put on her… little pearl earrings probably because she likes them, and she put them on to go out and experience art. And she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of her.
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, Yoko Ono, if you’re hip. But it’s not actually easy, is it? It’s uncomfortably hard. But what if I asked you to name a painting of a woman? See, now 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 the one’s doing the looking, is at 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? The title is deliberately provocative — 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 this 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. Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi and Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner were influenced by and engaged with the people around them, the art of their own 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, context just hasn’t been very kind to women. Or, as Nochlin puts it a bit 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… The 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 because they've been restricted from the same opportunities. That’s not much of a surprise. But, they’re 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, do we? 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 just weren’t given the opportunity to excel within those contexts, and so instead, they’re evaluated alongside each other. Which, if you’ve ever held up a Gentileschi alongside a Krasner, is ridiculous. And it’s basically saying, hey ladies, it’s not enough to keep pace with your own contemporaries, your own context – you need to transcend it, grab that lady baton, and become a part of history just to even get noticed.
So now, let’s put theory aside for a minute and focus, specifically, on the part about 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 — who, by the way was married to Édouard Manet’s brother, which, like now, is always mentioned — 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 of these parts come together. Bust out those 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 those.
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, they may have been holding tickets to 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 each other. And this happens to be the point, intermission, where 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, “psh, 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, like Haussmannization, 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, that’s a flaneur. 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 a 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 – because they’re looking at each other, not the stage. The woman we see isn’t the typical occupant of a painting 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, 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 have even suggested she was a widow.
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. 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, she’s not flirting, and decidedly not on display. Or…is she?
Well, that 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 opera glasses of his own set directly on her. And he’s putting some effort into it, his elbow is propped up on the railing, he’s 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 opera glasses. The point is, her objectification is inescapable. Which is kind of a bummer, because it felt like, for a minute, Cassatt was striking a major feminist blow.But instead, thanks to us, and that creeper in the background, it doesn't really feel like this painting is all 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 Mary Cassatt had tackled this before in “Woman with a Pearl Necklace in the Loge” from 1879. The woman she depicts 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 but also the audience that objectifies her. There are hints of feminism in “Woman with a Pearl Necklace in the Loge,” that mirror reflecting back the lookers, but this painting — “In The Loge” — had the potential to be so wonderfully, powerfully, overtly feminist, to take back the female gaze, and to solidify Cassatt as the preeminent great woman artist. So why did she blow it by adding that man in 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, and maybe apply our own contexts’ expectations onto them. Cassatt is making a statement about women, but women 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 Cassatt was addressing the woman problem, the problem of women so rarely hold the opera glasses and are almost always being seen through them – because 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 that 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 what she does do, is call 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 herself. And though we’ve already established that it’s a little odious to compare women artists to each other, it’s also kind of uncanny how many women artists have done this, have followed Cassatt’s lead, 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 out 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 rest of the crowd watched. 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 how lopsided the 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 are asking us to look at ourselves looking at women, which is really asking 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.
And okay, bear with me, because I want to throw out one more little theory. What if we also considered that Mary Cassatt owes her fame, at least partly, to the fact that she is a woman? Specifically, a feisty, unmarried American woman. If you’ve never noticed before 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 as a European painter alongside her European-born cohort, because she 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 is 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 it is hers: that woman painter who held her own in a boys club, and who painted her allotted subject matters – women and children, domestic scenes, opera loges – with defiant feminist subtext because as a loud, uncouth American woman, she could do that kind of thing and get away with it.
But look, the thing about subtext is that it isn’t loud. It’s subtle, and it’s nuanced, and it’s 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, she’s not guilt-tripping anyone. She shows you her context and 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 such piercing acuity, and also put your finger bang on a larger issue like art history’s woman problem. And contribute this painting to the canon that acts as the perfect springboard for the discussion 150 years before it even 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.