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Uni Archive: Renoir's La Loge & Mary Cassatt's Woman in Black at the Opera

Written circa 2008, this is a super simple compare/contrast for a Modernism unit, this was one of the first essays I ever submitted at uni, in March of my first year. We had a very inspiring lecturer for this one so big focus on Baudelaire, the flâneur, and the politics of the gaze – I know for these ‘archives’ I’ve made sure I don’t edit the essays at all but I couldn’t help correcting the typo in the first paragraph that read ‘panting’ instead of ‘painting’, and the way I didn’t italicise the names of the paintings sorrryyyy

Provide a detailed analysis of two selected works from the course paying particular attention to aspects such as technique and composition.

Artistic techniques such as subject, symbolism, composition, colour, light and brushwork, as well as the context of the artist themselves can help determine the character or message of a particular painting. Renoir’s La Loge (1874) and Mary Cassatt’s Woman in Black at the Opera (1877-78) both manipulate these techniques in contrasting manners – creating different styles of paintings, conveying different experiences of modernity, as defined by Baudelaire in “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863) as concerning the fleeting, the ephemeral and fugitive, as well as the anonymity of the crowd of strangers in Haussman’s new, urbanised Paris.

Renoir’s La Loge is painted from a male perspective – it depicts a common bourgeois social event – a couple at the opera, seated in the box. The subjects of the painting are a courtesan and her client. The courtesan herself is considered to be an emblem of modernity by Baudelaire, who suggests that the prostitute symbolises the fleeting, as well as being an example of modern relationships dependent solely on the exchange of money. The subjects convey modernity through their roles – the courtesan sits at the very front of the box, pushed up against the railing, and also pushed to the front of the painting, making her the central focus. She is not using her opera glasses, being available for the observation of others instead of actively looking herself, as her partner does, reclined, comfortable in the social space dominated by men in during the 19th century, observing other members of the audience and ignoring his own partner, actively looking – a very masculine trait – associated with the flâneur, who strolls, detached from the crowd, observing but not interacting with others. This reinforces the masculine perspective from which the painting has been produced as the viewer of the work is now positioned as the flâneur, observing the woman.

The symbolism in the work is also representational of modernity, with certain symbols representing characteristics of the particular subjects. The courtesan has bright, open flowers on her dress and in her hair, a symbol of her feminine sexuality and its subsequent availability to the observer. The opera glasses, a symbol of the act of looking, lay unused in her gloved hand, emphasising her inability to or disinterest in looking. Her flesh is covered by gloves, clothing, jewellery and make-up, all symbols of the new consumerism flourishing in modern Paris. They are also symbols of the monetary relationship between herself and her client, who has no doubt purchased or funded these items for her. In terms of composition, her centrality indicates that she is the object of visual interest in this painting, being gazed upon by the male artist and spectator. Lighting also supports this view as she is well lit while her partner reclines in the darker background. Colour has been used to emphasise the flowers on her dress and her lips, with the pink and red shades standing out from the black, white and gold of the rest of the work. Even the broad, feathery brushstrokes serve to impart a sense of the ephemeral and fugitive to the painting, representing modernity and the relationship between the prostitute and the client.

Cassatt’s Woman in Black at the Opera is painted from a female perspective and thus represents a more feminine experience of modernity. The subject is similar in that it shows a woman in a box at the opera, but through understanding the symbolism and context of the painting, it is possible to read this work very differently to Renoir’s. The subject does not conform to the modern expectations of women as the courtesan in La Loge does. She is not well adorned, her fan is unused, only just visible to the viewer, and not visible to any other audience member in the painting. By hiding the fan she is oppressing a symbol of her femininity. Perhaps the most important symbol in this work are the opera glasses – that the woman is using to peruse either the audience or the stage. She is actively looking – an activity reserved for males in the public domain. Also significant is that she does not appear to be accompanied – as women had to be in modern Paris when out in public, again, the woman seems to be disregarding the expectations of her by her 19th century society.

In the top left section of the work sits a man, leaning heavily over the balcony, staring at the woman through his own opera glasses. His gesture suggests he is shocked to see such a woman on her own at the opera, not available for observation because she herself is caught up in the act of observing, usually reserved for the flâneur. In terms of composition, unlike the courtesan, this woman is not central, and not well lit, not openly available to be observed. She seems more comfortable in her space despite being unaccompanied, she is not cramped up to the front of the painting so as to be easily viewed by the audience, but comfortably watching the scene in her own personal space – perhaps a statement by Cassatt regarding the restrictions placed on women and the spaces they could occupy freely during the 19th century. The woman has no tokens of femininity, no flowers or bountiful adornments, and her actions in fact make her less feminine than the courtesan in La Loge. The broad, loose brushstrokes again convey the fleeting, fast-moving sense of modernity, with the background figures lacking detail.

Both Mary Cassatt’s Woman in Black at the Opera and Renoir’s La Loge use artistic techniques, composition and context to provide two different experiences of modernity, both concerning the same subject – woman as spectacle – but producing different readings of the subject. Subject, symbolism, composition, colour, tonality, brushwork and artist’s context all help to identify a particular experience of modernity and convey it in the painting. Both works give an account of modernity in urbanised Paris during the 19th century as described by Baudelaire in his essay “The Painter of Modern Life”, influenced by their use of techniques.

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