Edgar Degas, Ballerina and Lady with a Fan, 1855 Mary Cassatt, At the Opera, 1879
(Philadelphia Museum of Art) (Boston Museum of Fine Arts)
Although there are only two women painters amongst the famous Impressionists, their different approaches in accordance with the feminine points of view, to the same subjects as their male counterparts is refreshing. Mary Cassatt was an American artist from a wealthy family, working in Paris. She became friends with and was invited to exhibit with the Impressionists by Degas. He was even reported to have said " No woman, has the right to draw like that." Being a woman artist from upper class society had one major drawback and that was the spaces of modernity she couldn't depict because she didn't have access to them. The theater and the opera were two places of entertainment that could accommodate both proper ladies as well as men.
These two paintings by Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt both are a discourse about looking, spectatorship and dominance. The main difference between the two is who is doing the looking and does the one being looked at have any power over the situation. In Degas' Ballerina and Lady with a Fan, although a woman is sitting in the front of the balcony watching the ballerina perform for her, she is also dominated by the male viewer who would be sitting right behind, looking over her shoulder.
At this time, ballet was an interlude in an opera. The sitting arrangements at the boxes over the stage with the privileged view were always occupied by women in the front row and men in the back for protection. In Degas' painting, we the viewers are in the position of the male spectator, which was also the artist's view. By the use of a compressed space, Degas has created a sense of dominance; the lady dominates over the ballerina who is working, dancing for her while the male viewer is watching the ballerina and his surroundings dominating over the whole scene. In Mary Cassatt's At the Opera, however, the viewer is beside instead of above and behind the lady and there is a sense of space around the female spectator.
According the Griselda Pollock social spaces were policed by men watching women, positioning the spectator outside the painting. In Cassatt's painting we can see the actual man who is doing the policing in the balcony to the woman's right. Contrary to Degas' female spectator who is holding her opera glasses in her hand, we see a lady more actively engaged with looking in Mary Cassatt's painting because she is holding her binoculars to her eyes and even leaning forward to get a better look. She does not acknowledge the gaze aimed in her direction, which confirms his right to look and appraise.1
The very proper lady in Cassatt's At the Opera, in a black dress that covers her completely from neck to toe is dressed for a matinée. She is also wearing a hat and gloves, the only bit of skin visible is her face and neck. Since the Degas takes place in the evening the lady's dress with the open shoulders would be considered normal- her arms and shoulders would be the only places she would expose. On the other hand, the ballet dancers, exposing their arms and legs, would be objectified and considered sexual commodities. This was also reinforced because of their origins from the lower classes while the ladies are from the upper classes.
The main differences come into being, I think in how the different genders choose to approach the process of looking and spectatorship. The female artist, although acknowledges her subject is being regarded by a male gaze, she depicts her as having some power of ignoring it by watching the performance herself. Meanwhile, in the male artist's painting the ballerina is on stage displayed for the male gaze, and the lady with the fan, although herself is a spectator, is positioned in a space that puts her under the dominant gaze of the male sitting behind her, giving neither subject any control over her faith what so ever.