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Female Impressionists
Today I appreciate Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, two very talented Impressionist artists.  Impressionist art cops a lot of flack about being chocolate boxy, overrated and overpriced.  It can be all those things but there is a lot of historical value in much of the work, commentaries on the changing world to industrialism, the loss of the innocent countryside, the cynicism of the modern age...but I digress.  The biggest criticism I have of many (not all) Impressionists is the misogyny.  Renoir was the master of objectifying women.  Yes it was a statement about the time - women were there to be looked at while men were there to look.  It was the age of the flaneur, the gentleman stroller who walked and looked and owned all with his gaze.  But I still find it creepy.

This painting "La Loge" by Renoir is wheeled out regulary to demonstrate this theory but it is a spectacularly good example:

Note the striped dress drawing attention to her body.  Her useless, decorative opera glasses, her vacant stare.  Contrast with his determined gaze (at someone else, not the stage) and use of binoculars...We are in the place of the male viewer, we are voyeurs here, looking through our glasses at the woman, who is there for our taking.  Even more voyeristic is this "through the keyhole" perv at a woman drying herself by Degas.

Because all women dry themselves after a bath like this.  Feel uncomfortable much?

Anyway this isn't about the men.  This is about the women, Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt.  I have included these two images to provide a foil for them.  Both these ladies provided a totally different perspective and commentary to public and private life.  They provided the female gaze in an environment and movement dominated by the male gaze. Even better, they were acknowledged by their fellow artists, so the Impressionists weren't all sexist pigs, just mostly. :)

First of all let's revisit the opera.  Here is Mary Cassatt's take on the same subject:

The painting speaks for itself really.  The sitter is dressed modestly and is obviously at the opera to watch it (unspeakable!)  She is using masculine opera glasses and her fan, an important feminine attribute (there was an entire language of fan flirtation) is being securely held and is folded.  Her gaze is on the stage.  Our gaze is on her, yes, but not in a voyeristic way.  It feels like the viewer is in the box with her, a companion looking on slighly amused maybe, at her so lost in the performance.

Cassatt's version of a bath in "The Child's Bath" is the opposite of Degas' painting.  Here a mother tenderly washers her child.  It is a domestic scene and entirely of the female sphere.  Here the viewer is obviously a part of the intimacy of the scene and welcomed in.

Morisot too executed a number of toilette scenes.  Here are two of them "Woman combing her hair" and "Woman Powdering herself"


In the former the sitter is directly gazing at the viewer, almost as if she has been disturbed by us entering and catching her mid hair do.  In the latter, while the sitter is not gazing at us, we are clearly in the room with her as she powders her nose.  There is no feeling of intrusion or voyerism here, nor are either of them (unknowingly) displaying their bodies for the viewer's pleasure. 

Compare the painting of the lady powdering her nose with Seurat's version of the same topic.  While strictly not an Impressionist, (Seurat was a Pointillist) he was working at a similar time and the comparison really is there for the making!

So there you have it.  Two women painting at the same time as some of the most famous male artists in Wester art history.  They weren't overlooked and did enjoy success and interest at the time but nowhere near as much as their male counterparts.  Still, who wants to buy paintings of babies and children and mothers and ladies in their nighties and boring spinsters at the opera when you can have boobies and bums and silly floosies and....

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In Mary Cassatt's painting, is that a guy checking her out in the background. It's very funny if it is.

Yes he is and I think it is meant to be a wry comment on being watched. :)

Thanks for posting this, it is very interesting.

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