One of Mary Cassatt’s most famous paintings, In the Loge, 1880, a portrait of a woman at the opera, is also one of her most complex and interesting. She seems to anticipate the literature of the gaze as developed by Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and others. Feminists have seen clear patterns of power expressed in the gaze, especially when men gaze at women who may be sexual objects. When we look at the painting we are ourselves gazing at a woman who is wholly unaware of us–yet the painting itself presents her to us in a way that belies what we actually see. Of course, we are meant to gaze at this woman, but Cassatt has dressed her completely in black. And she has dressed her completely from top to toe so that we see more an emblem of a woman than a woman for whom we may have some desire. Does Cassatt somehow give us a sense of power in relation to this woman?
Then, the woman is engaged in gazing at a distant figure. We can safely assume she is gazing at another person, but a woman or a man? What clues might help us know? One might have assumed that she was gazing at another woman to compare fashions, but given her own scant interest in fashion, is that really likely? Is it possible she is looking at another woman with a sense of desire? Or is it more likely she is looking at a man with a sense of desire? We see a man, rendered very small, with his opera glasses gazing at the woman herself. What is his motive in studying her so closely? His rakish posture implies a sexual interest. We have here an example of triangulation of desire a la Rene Girard and Eve Sedgwick, and we are involved.
All of this may be very innocent, just Cassatt’s comment on the opera as a social experience rather than as a dramatic musical experience. The lighting in the painting suggests that the opera has not yet started, and the angle of the woman’s opera glasses suggest she is, like the man, studying a member of the audience. But the point of the painting seems to be that there is as much drama in the audience as on stage. Cassatt gives us a range of possibilities in terms of the relationship of figures in the painting to one another as well as our own relationship to all the figures in the painting. The power of the gaze is expressed everywhere in the painting, and Cassatt certainly understands that the act of viewing–whether of a painting or living beings–gives the viewer power over what is seen, if only temporarily and if only partially.
One obvious benefit from our gazing at this painting is our own pleasure. Color, form, the expression of figures in the composition–all these conduce to a pleasurable experience. Such pleasure may be a form of power as a natural consequence of a careful aesthetic engagement.