Traditionally, women's role in society has always been a silenced voice, which comes across through their depictions in paintings. The passive female image with the conventional Venus pose is ubiquitous with the classical representation of feminism. The perception of feminism in the 19th century was expressed and can be elucidated through the medium of artwork, noting the daring advances that occurred in art that both inspired and represented the increased progressiveness that feminism was experiencing. Both Mary Cassatt's "Women in Black at the Opera" and Edouard Manet's "Olympia" explore the emancipation of feminism, through their painting styles and all aspects of female appearances and their different gazes. These painters, through their works, broke the convention of depicting a woman as an "subject" instead of an "object" and facilitated the transition of the woman's role in society at that time.
The passive women imagery was a tragedy of the scopic power relationship; which means, at the time, paintings were predominantly tailored for the viewership of men (Broude, 2000). As a result, some painters responded to this nonequivalent scopic power relationship by adopting new painting style with the use of innovative free and broken brush strokes, unusual visual angles, and modern lifestyle. For example, the artist Mary Cassatt's created a new image of women through her "Women in Black at the Opera." On the other hand, artists like Edouard Manet created "Olympia" to challenge women's passiveness through a traditional painting style, but ultimately to also challenge the transition of women from "object" to "subject."
The painting styles, lighting, and brush strokes of Cassatt's painting led to fundamental changes in the way men and woman looked at paintings, which ensued from such a painting style. In this painting, a woman, dressed conservatively in black, with opera glasses and a fan, is depicted alongside a number of male patrons of the opera, all looking to the left at the unseen spectacle before them. The dark blacks and muted whites of the woman's outfit somewhat hides her femaleness from the painting, making her blend in amongst the other patrons; this plays into the strategy of wearing black to the opera, which was a deliberate component of the opera experience (men were able to disappear in the opera box and not be seen). In this way, the black dress and the muted lighting plays into a further blending of the woman with the rest of the opera crowd; she 'disappears' into the crowd and is not the subject of attention within the painting. The artistry and style in Cassatt's painting also led to a social and psychological shift from the predominant male-oriented viewership; this painting demonstrated that women were worthy to attend and appreciate modern things, such as opera (which is what was considered "modern" at the time) (Broude, 2000).
The use of an impressionist painting style in Cassatt's painting pioneered the liberation of depicting from soft passive objects into sharp vibrant subjects. The depiction of the woman itself, as just part of the crowd - one gazing instead of the one being gazed at - is quite progressive, as it is very different from one who is passive and inviting people to gaze at her. Instead, she is staring intently off to the side, in profile and in conservative dress to ensure an obscured profile. The glasses held to her face also obscure the eyes from the viewer, making it difficult to ogle her with any kind of sexual gaze. In this way, she is de-sexualized to the purpose of equalizing her, which is also supported by the stern holding of the fan instead of holding it delicately in front of her. The other man around her are looking at each other, seeming foolish and distracted by their own strange games; the woman, by extension, is depicted as the most responsible, attentive operagoer there, thus indicating that not only should women deserve to be equally treated in terms of opera attendance, she might well be better at watching opera than the men around her. The single man in the background looking through his glasses at the woman herself pokes fun at this female gaze; she is serene, tough and resolute, and we can see the actual 'male gaze' being performed, thus making the concept itself seem inferior.
In Manet's Olympia, the traditional nude in repose is played with as a concept, thus making it confrontational and quite progressive. The look of the painting itself is quite unconventional for a typical nude; instead of the long, slow brushstrokes typically encountered, Manet uses quick, harsh strokes that are broad to indicate a more abstracted notion of the woman's body. Instead of low, atmospheric lighting to emphasize the beauty of the figure, the lighting is bright and harsh, depicting the dehumanizing and humiliating nature of the nudity. Having her maid be right next to her, fully-clothed, further points out how the woman is nude solely for the male viewer's benefit. The nudity in the painting is far from idealized; it is rough and strident, and yet the figure is still sensual because of the confidence with which the fiture carries herself.
The appearance, posture, and positioning of the female in both paintings both convey decidedly different messages and depictions of women, as appropriate to their contexts. For example, in Women in Black at the Opera, the woman Cassatt depicted is conservatively dressed in prudish black clothing, while radically seated in the male dominated opera house seat holding a viewing glass to her face enjoying the opera. A women at the time had no luxury to enjoy opera, and so the painting shatters the conventional status of the women into a more independent and equally capable of enjoying opera as men. Manet's Olympia, on the other hand, slyly shows a nude woman mimicking a traditional Venus pose while cleverly depicting the opposite image of a strong woman. Instead of the typical nude where the woman is looking past the viewer or with her eyes closed, Olympia stares defiantly at the viewer, challenging them to look upon her. In this way, the gaze is inverted, as the viewer is no longer peeking in discreetly without the woman knowing; the woman is aware of our gaze, and we have to now account for it.
Ultimately, both Cassatt's and Manet's depictions of women are different from the conventional representation of female. Cassatt's work shows a professional, serious woman taking her pursuits more seriously than her male counterparts, while Manet's Olympia confronts those who would gawk at her nudity, showing her body with pride and taking ownership of her sexuality. Both of these works turn notions of the male gaze on their head, placing men accountable for the gaze by women who actually bring up the question. While Venuses usually have their hand placed absently over their vaginas, Olympia actually intentionally covers her, clutching it in protection - this further indicates her control over her own body, that her gaze tells men they cannot violate (Lipton, 1999).
In conclusion, the two different gazes of the female depicted in Cassatt's and Manet's works provide unique impacts on the viewers of these paintings, leading them to command greater respect for women and their own capabilities. With Cassatt's work, women were shown to be just as capable, if not more so, of enjoying the fruits of modernity and art as men, while Manet's work challenges the male gaze by pointing out the exploitative nature of the Venus pose, while still showing a confident woman who is in full command of her body and its effects on people. The history and influences of modern art practices on the feminist movement were immense, as displayed here, and has led to an increasingly nuanced and sensitive portrayal of women in art. As such, future trends in feminist art will continue to be avant-garde, following the tradition set by Manet and Cassatt here; while the settings and art styles may change, the message of gender equality and female advocacy will be represented strongly by these future works.
Broude, Norma. "Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman or the Cult of True Womanhood?" Woman's Art
Journal vol. 21, no. 2 (Autumn 2000), pp. 36-43.
Cassatt, Mary. Woman in Black at the Opera. 1879.
Lipton, Eunice. Alias Olympia: A Woman's Search for Manet's Notorious Model & Her Own
Desire. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.
Manet, Edouard. Olympia. Oil on canvas, 51.4"x74.8". Musee d'Orsay, Paris. 1863.