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Video transcript

when historians talk about late 19th century Paris they often talk about a culture of display and this is a painting that is all about that we're looking at Mary Cassatt's painting woman with a pearl necklace in a lodge and this is perhaps Mary Cassatt sister pictured in the Paris Opera House she's sitting in a private booth and we can see behind her a mirror which reflects all the other private booths in the Opera House so the Paris Opera House situated by the intersection of the grand boulevards is a building which is a kind of jewel itself but that also puts its occupants on display in other words the stage of the Opera House is not simply where the ballet takes place but the stage is also the audience the architecture of the Paris Opera House enabled seeing and being seen and afforded numerous opportunities in small little balconies and spaces where one could glimpse the fashionable elite of Paris and we certainly feel that we're looking at one of the members of that elite in this painting by Mary Cassatt what you said is exactly right look at the composition America saw must have been turned away from the stage looking into the box towards her sister and Lidia is in turn looking back out towards the audience and so we're seeing Lidia the way that the audience would have seen her had they glanced into this box she is this object of display within this jewel box but Cassatt doesn't paint herself reflected in the mirror where she must have been as she looked at Vidya and painted her so this is a painting that really does show the opulence of Imperial France the moment is being represented is clearly intermission the chandelier has been lowered into the space of the audience the lights are up and so the audience's gaze his shifted from the stage to themselves so Cassatt's family although it was very wealthy actually her father refused to support her desire to be an artist and although he paid for her basic living expenses refused to support her art supplies and her studio where she painted this despite real support from the leading artists of the day she was a close friend of daga who we had enormous respect for her ability and she was an extraordinary painter in every way appear of the great impressionist painters in Paris this painting displays virtuoso technique Mary Cassatt gained her knowledge of painting from a variety of sources but it was difficult because she was a woman her first formal classes were at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art but women were not allowed to study from the nude even within the context of art school and like many artists of her generation they moved to Paris where there was a little bit more freedom for women who were aspiring artists and although she couldn't enter they called the boys art because she was a woman she did enter the private studio of several accomplished artists and studied with them but the world was still a restrictive one for her even in Paris and she was not for instance able to spend time with her friends like Degas at the cafes and so we see that actually reflected in her subject matter which tends to be domestic or perhaps a night out of the Opera it's difficult I think to remember those restrictions for women when we look at this painting because there's an extraordinary sense of freedom about the woman who's depicted here she's leaning back on her right elbow there's a strong diagonal that has a sense of informality and movement real self-confidence the woman with a pearl necklace perhaps Lydia seems so much her own agent in the world and it really does remind us of the tensions that existed at the end of the 19th century as women were really entering into the public space you know that the tension between public and private is played out not only in terms of the subject matter not only the fact that they're in a kind of semi-private space within this booth in the public space of the Opera House but also in the contrast between light and shadow that plays across Lydia's body look at the way that the light picks up only the side of her face the front of her face is in shadow not only is it rather brave on Cassatt's part but it also speaks to the representation of bushwalk culture this notion of privacy and its importance even as one views the stage with others Cassatt has so much in common with her impressionist colleagues and is really picking up on some of the most advanced problems that they were confronting in their art and interest in artificial light for example the informality of loose brushwork of an attempt to capture a moment in time these are all concerns that were important to her impressionist colleagues one of the areas that I find most interesting is the place where her shoulders meet the representation of her shoulders and the representation of the reflection of her shoulders and all of that comes together just at the top of the upholstered chair that she sits on and if you work out from that point the arc of the balcony that we see reflected in the mirror becomes a reference to her vision as she looks out at the audience even as it looks back to her