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In The Loge , 1878
Figures in theater audiences appear in the work of Degas, Renoir, and Mary Cassatt, consistent with the Impressionists’ interest in the leisure class. In its close-up format and the cropping of the figure, A Woman in Black at the Opera reflects particularly the influence of Degas, who had befriended Cassatt and invited her to exhibit with the Impressionist group in 1879.
A Woman in Black at the Opera was painted in the year following open dissension among the Impressionists. In 1879 the word “Impressionist” had been dropped from the title of the exhibition : “It was agreed to speak simply of a ‘Group of Independent Artists.’ And Armand Silvestre thereupon informed the public : “You are invited to attend the funeral service, procession, and interment of the impressionists. This painful decision is tendered to you by the Independents. Neither false tears nor false rejoicing. Let there be calm. Only a word has died... These artists have decided, after serious conference, that the term which the public adopted to indicate them signified absolutely nothing and have invented another.’ But in spite of this change of name, the painters continued to be known as impressionists” (John Rewald, The History of Impres- sionism, New York, 1973, p. 421). The years 1879-1880 were, contrary to Silvestre’s remarks, years in which Impressionism broadened its scope, bringing not only Cassatt but also Gauguin into the circle.
Like Degas and Renoir, Cassatt places the part of the painting to which the eye is naturally drawn — the sitter’s face — in sharper focus than other parts. Cassatt's Impressionism leans toward optical realism : when one focuses on a face, the surrounding form and space are, in fact, out of focus. This kind of optical truth relates to the concern of Impressionism with an objective statement of color and light, but here there is also a form of reportage, resulting in what might be called documentary Impressionism.
The composition as a whole is typical of a formula developed in the late sixties by Monet : beyond the immediate foreground the artist looks, often from a raised vantage point, into a volume of space that is usually closed at the back. By means of loose brushstrokes the painter emphasized the color-bearing light contained in the enclosed space. In short, like Degas, Cassatt found the artificial light and décor of the opera house an effective vehicle for Impressionist ideas. Also within the Impressionist idiom, Cassatt flattened the picture space and forced the sensation of color and light toward the surface of the painting, by masking the curve of the balcony with the figure of the woman in black, and by permitting the horizontal of the railing to merge with its vertical side in the lower left corner of the picture. Unlike Sisley in The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne Cassatt masked the one element, the balcony, that would provide a clear cue to the space behind. Instead, like Monet and Degas, she chose to emphasize abstract and formal qualities. One has only to compare the dress worn by the woman here to the Worth gown worn by Madame Charpentier in Renoir’s portrait to see the differences between a more and a less avant-garde Impressionist style.
It is difficult to know if the subject of the painting has more than superficial significance. The central figure is busily engaged in looking, the gentleman on the other side of the balcony is looking in our direction, and the other people in the painting are, like us, viewers, spectators. Cassatt seems to be making a point about the act of looking and partaking in a visual phenomenon. An analogy between the viewer in the picture and the viewer of the picture is inevitable. As Reff has said of Degas’s use of the pictures within his pictures, ”...it calls our attention to the artifical aspects of the picture in which it occurs...” (Theodore Reff, ” The Pictures within Degas’s Pictures,” Metropolitan Museum Journal | , p. 125).
Signed, lower left : Mary Cassatt
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Charles Henry Hayden Fund, 10.35
J. Gardner Cassatt, brother of the artist (from 1880);
Martin and Camentron, Paris (by 1893 ?);
Durand-Ruel, Paris and New York;
F.W. Bayley, Boston.
1893 Paris, Durand-Ruel, Cassatt, no. 13
1909 Boston, St. Botolph Club, cat. no. 24
1926-1927 Chicago Art Institute, Cassatt, no. 1
1928 Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, Cassatt, no. 2
1933 Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, A Century of Progress, no. 437
1941-1942 Baltimore Museum of Art, Cassatt, no. 7
1947 New York, Wildenstein, Cassatt, no. 5
1962 Baltimore Museum of Art, Manet, Degas, Cassatt, Morisot. no. 101
1970 Washington, D.C, National Gallery of Art, Mary Cassatt, no. 18
W.C. Brownell, “The Younger Painters of Ame- tica,” Scribner's Monthly, XXIl, 1881, no. 3, p. 333 (engraving by A.F.P. Davis, 1880);
F.A. Sweet, Miss Mary Cassatt. Impressionist Jrom Pensylvania, Norman (Okla.), 1966, p. 48- 49,137, pl. 11;
American Paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, 1969, L p. 44, no. 196, U1, p. 229, fig. 473;
A.D. Breeskin, Mary Cassatt, A Catalogue Raisonné,... Washington. D.C, 1970, p. 55, no. 73 (this painting catalogued and _ illustrated), p. 290-251, nos. 719-722 (sketches for this painting catalogued and illustrated);
EJ. Bullard, Mary Cassatt. Oils and Pastels, New York, 1972, p. 32-33, color pl. 6;
J. Rewald, The History of Impressionism. New York, 1973, p. 423, ill. in color p. 425.
|Institution||Museum of Fine Arts, Boston|
|Medium||Oil on canvas|
|Dimensions||81.28 x 66.04 cm|