Mary Cassatt, Woman in Black at the Opera, 1879, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
In the 19th century Parisian bourgeois society the public sphere was a forbidden area for a honourable woman on her own but as in all rules there was an exception. There was one public space that was actually available to both men and women: the opera. This painting by Mary Cassatt has been –for obvious reasons- central when discussing feminism and 19th century French art. When compared with paintings from male artists, striking differences can be noted. For example in Renoir’s famous La Loge some the female protagonist seems to invite with the position of her body, the clothes she is wearing and the abstract look the gaze of the viewer while at the same time she avoids direct eye contact with him/ her.
Auguste Renoir, La Loge, 1874, oil on canvas, Courtauld Institute Galleries, London
On the contrary, in Cassatt’s Woman in Black at the Opera, the woman is actually involved in looking turning her head away from the viewer. This is not only an apparent defiance of traditional roles from a female artist, but a defiance by at the same time a critical departure from the part of the Cassatt from the traditional representations expected from her as a woman, but as an artist as well. She enters the world of artistic creativity and defies the traditional role of art object assigned to her. A sign of Cassatt's realisation and deep understanding of these social conventions might be the man in the background who has turned his head away from the spectacle and concentrates on the protagonist of the painting, although she seems to have not noticed him.