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Art Criticism – Cassatt Course Work

Art Criticism – Cassatt Course Work

Traditionally, women’s role in society has always been a silenced voice, which comes across through their depictions in paintings. The passive female image with the conventional Venus pose is ubiquitous with the classical representation of feminism. The perception of feminism in the 19th century was expressed and can be elucidated through the medium of artwork, noting the daring advances that occurred in art that both inspired and represented the increased progressiveness that feminism was experiencing. Mary Cassatt’s “Women in Black at the Opera” explores the emancipation of feminism, through her painting style and all aspects of female appearances and their different gazes. This painter, in her work, broke the convention of depicting a woman as an “subject” instead of an “object” and facilitated the transition of the woman’s role in society at that time.

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Mary Cassatt created a new image of women through her “Women in Black at the Opera.” The painting styles, lighting, and brush strokes of Cassatt’s painting led to fundamental changes in the way men and woman looked at paintings, which ensued from such a painting style. In this painting, a woman, dressed conservatively in black, with opera glasses and a fan, is depicted alongside a number of male patrons of the opera, all looking to the left at the unseen spectacle before them. The dark blacks and muted whites of the woman’s outfit somewhat hides her femaleness from the painting, making her blend in amongst the other patrons; this plays into the strategy of wearing black to the opera, which was a deliberate component of the opera experience (men were able to disappear in the opera box and not be seen). In this way, the black dress and the muted lighting plays into a further blending of the woman with the rest of the opera crowd; she ‘disappears’ into the crowd and is not the subject of attention within the painting. The artistry and style in Cassatt’s painting also led to a social and psychological shift from the predominant male-oriented viewership; this painting demonstrated that women were worthy to attend and appreciate modern things, such as opera.

The use of an impressionist painting style in Cassatt’s painting pioneered the liberation of depicting from soft passive objects into sharp vibrant subjects. The depiction of the woman itself, as just part of the crowd – one gazing instead of the one being gazed at – is quite progressive, as it is very different from one who is passive and inviting people to gaze at her. Instead, she is staring intently off to the side, in profile and in conservative dress to ensure an obscured profile. The glasses held to her face also obscure the eyes from the viewer, making it difficult to ogle her with any kind of sexual gaze. In this way, she is de-sexualized to the purpose of equalizing her, which is also supported by the stern holding of the fan instead of holding it delicately in front of her. The other man around her are looking at each other, seeming foolish and distracted by their own strange games; the woman, by extension, is depicted as the most responsible, attentive operagoer there, thus indicating that not only should women deserve to be equally treated in terms of opera attendance, she might well be better at watching opera than the men around her. The single man in the background looking through his glasses at the woman herself pokes fun at this female gaze; she is serene, tough and resolute, and we can see the actual ‘male gaze’ being performed, thus making the concept itself seem inferior.

In Women in Black at the Opera, the woman Cassatt depicted is conservatively dressed in prudish black clothing, while radically seated in the male dominated opera house seat holding a viewing glass to her face enjoying the opera. A women at the time had no luxury to enjoy opera, and so the painting shatters the conventional status of the women into a more independent and equally capable of enjoying opera as men. Ultimately, Cassatt’s depiction of women is different from the conventional representation of the female. Cassatt’s work shows a professional, serious woman taking her pursuits more seriously than her male counterparts. This work turns notions of the male gaze on their head, placing men accountable for the gaze by women who actually bring up the question. With Cassatt’s work, women were shown to be just as capable, if not more so, of enjoying the fruits of modernity and art as men.

Works Cited

Cassatt, Mary. Woman in Black at the Opera. 1879.

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