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Video transcript
(piano music) Voiceover: Paris in the second half of the 19th century had become a modern city. It was a place with spectacle. It was place where the newly wealthy would show themselves off and would also be interested in seeing what other people were wearing. And there's no place that that's more clear than in the opera house. Voiceover: And the opera house was really the center piece of this new modern Paris that was begun during the Second Empire in the 1850's and 60's. And it was and is still an amazingly lavish place. It's got gold and mosaics and paintings and mirrors and broad, beautiful staircases and balconies. It's a fabulous space. Voiceover: And artists including Degas and Mary Cassat would often paint there. But the opera house is a complicated place. Of course there was the stage, but so much of that building was given over to the public display of the audience before the performance, after the performance, and during the intermission. Voiceover: So the social spaces where people could see and be seen were a critical part of the opera house. Voiceover: And that's the subject of an important painting by Mary Cassatt called, "In the Loge." Voiceover: And although there are several paintings by Mary Cassatt of this subject and paintings by other artists like Renoir of figures in the Loge in the boxes in the opera house, none of those paintings reveal a subject so engaged in looking. Voiceover: Let's just set the scene for a moment. Most likely this is intermission. The great chandelier has come down from the ceiling and has illuminated the audience and now she is taking the opportunity, not to look at the stage, but to look across at somebody else. Voiceover: And she is being looked at by someone else that we see. So in a way she's sandwiched between two gazes. Our gaze and the male figure that we see behind her. Voiceover: Well that's so interesting because the male figure who's got his own opera glasses and is peering at her reminds us that we are just as much a voyeur looking at her as he is. The painting itself is just beautifully handled. It's so loose and it's so brave in so many ways. Let's put this in context. Mary Cassatt is one of the impressionists. She was invited by Degas into one of the impressionist exhibitions. He admired her work and she is extraordinarily advanced, but she's found here, in the opera, one of the few places where she can really partake as a woman in the activity of looking and being seen, which was so central to the work of the impressionists. Voiceover: And so central to modern life in Paris. When we think about the advanced painting of this moment, of Monet and Manet and Degas and Renoir, we know that they're painting dance halls and cafes and bars and the social spaces of the city and the streets of the city. The grand boulevards of the new Paris because a woman, Mary Cassatt, couldn't be free in those spaces in the same way as her male colleagues. But as you said, the opera was a place that she could and did attend. And it made sense, as a woman artist wanting to paint the modern world, for her to paint the space that was really socially accessible to her. Voiceover: And then she's placing, as the protagonist, a woman who has real agency. This woman is in the process of looking as the male gazer is, as well, and there's this reveling between the male gaze and the female gaze. They both have the opera glasses. And just look at the woman in the foreground. She's leaning forward, her head is forward. There's a real enthusiasm within her body to take in the scene. Voiceover: And she leans her elbow on the edge of the box just the like male figure does behind her, who's looking at her. Her fan is held in an upright way in her lap in a way that almost seems kind of phallic. There's something very strong and present about her. Voiceover: It reminds me of some of the drawings and paintings that Degas did of opera glasses. And so there is this interesting tension about the power of a woman and her gaze. Voiceover: And also a sort of a aspect of technology here in the way that visual technology was enhancing the world that we could see and ways that we could see it. Voiceover: So this is a painting that's very much about this culture of looking. And, of course, we are active participants in it. Voiceover: And Mary Cassatt is choosing a modern subject, but also this modern way of handling it, this sense of capturing the fleeting moment that was so important to these artists and finding a new visual language to do that. (piano music)