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Cassatt, Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge

Mary Cassatt, Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, 1879, oil on canvas, 32 x 23-1/2 inches or 81.3 x 59.7 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music playing) Steven: 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. Beth: We're looking at Mary Cassatt's painting, Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, and this is, perhaps, Mary Cassatt's 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. Steven: So the Paris opera house, situated at 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. Beth: 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. Steven: What you said is exactly right. Look at the composition. Mary Cassatt must have been turned away from the stage looking into the box towards her sister, and Lydia is, in turn, looking back out towards the audience, and so we're seeing Lydia 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. Beth: But Cassatt doesn't paint herself reflected in the mirror, where she must have been as she looked at Lydia and painted her. Steven: So this is a painting that really does show the opulence of imperial France. The moment that's 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 has shifted from the stage to themselves. Beth: 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. Steven: This, despite real support from the leading artists of the day. She was a close friend of Degas, who had enormous respect for her ability, and she was an extraordinary painter, in every way a peer of the great impressionist painters in Paris. Beth: This painting displays a virtuoso technique. Mary Cassatt gained her knowledge of painting from a variety of sources, but it was difficult because she was a woman. Steven: Her first formal classes were at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, but women were not allowed to study from the nude, even from within the context of art school. Beth: 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. Although she couldn't enter the École des Beaux-Arts because she was a woman, she did enter the private studio of several accomplished artists and studied with them. Steven: 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. We see that, actually, reflected in her subject matter, which tends to be domestic, or perhaps a night out at the opera. Beth: 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 Steven: 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 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 bourgeois culture, this notion of privacy and its importance, even as one views the stage with others. Beth: 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, an 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. Steven: One of the areas that I found 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. (piano music playing)