When Countess Olenska appeared in the box of one of New York’s oldest aristocratic families one January night in the 1870s, a wave of indignation reverberated throughout the seats of the new Opera House. You’d think the fine gentlemen and ladies of New York would have been more enthralled with the Faustian tragedy being played before their eyes, but writer Edith Wharton and, later on, Martin Scorsese in his movie adaptation, had something else in mind. For what better scandal than a woman tainted with marital problems, and what better scene than the Opera House itself to set the plot for The Age of Innocence, one of the best novels of the twentieth century?
In New York, as well as in Paris, at the time considered the cultural capital of the world, the Opera was the place to see and to be seen, where the who’s who of high society congregated and sipped champagne in between gulps of gossip and tragedy acts that sent the blood boiling and made it thirsty for intrigue. Needless to say that this arena was ruthless to outsiders, to the nouveaux riches, and to anyone who dared not conform to its unwritten rules.
The same rituals applied to the theater too, a place with a much longer tradition, where people went to show off their class and refinement while scrutinizing everyone else.
Here is where Mary Cassatt, Wharton’s countrywoman and the only ever American to exhibit alongside the French Impressionists, shines through with her painting In the Loge. The picture pokes fun at the strange ritual of “seeing and being seen” and shows us a woman at the theater in between acts, surveying the social scene with her opera glasses.
The brushwork is loose, and fair enough, the piece was initially titled At the Français – A Sketch. But there is something undeniably decisive about this scene, from the woman’s black outfit that offers don’t-mess-with-me seriousness to the determination in her gestures and the tight grip of her fan and binoculars.
I just love it when artists go against their character and break their pattern with unusual themes, styles or different color palettes. If I were to see In the Loge for the first time and someone would ask me to guess its authorship, I’d answer Degas or shrug my shoulders. Cassatt wouldn’t be top of my list.
Why? It’s that black! It’s so empowering and quite different from Cassatt’s usual palette. Compare it to the artist’s other paintings of theater and opera boxes, like Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge (1879) and In the Box (c. 1879) with their diaphanous displays of color and pink, fleshy undertones.
Not to mention At the Theater, also painted in 1879, coming alive like the jittery remembrance of a hot summer dream. The sitter is the same one from Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge. It’s Lydia, Cassatt’s sister, with whom she was living in Paris at the time, a connection that further justifies the warmth and intimacy suffusing these paintings.
There’s also an emphasis on doubles. There’s the double pair of young women surveying the audience in In the Box. Lydia’s mirror reflection in the two paintings. The Lady in Black and her … ah, I’ll tell you later.
Compared to the others, In the Loge is far more detached in its dark, earthy tones. The painting has that accuracy of analysis that only an impartial observer can bestow upon a stranger. Yet it doesn’t lack in a sort of tenderness, either.
In the Loge reminds me of this famous scene in Gone with the Wind where Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), recently widowed, is attending a charity ball in Atlanta. All dressed up in black and on her best behavior – for mourners shouldn’t have fun – she is dying to dance and take part in the general gaiety, secretly bopping along behind her stall. Like a bad omen, even her presence there is ill-discussed amongst the ladies, as any widow ought to stay away from social events altogether.
I feel quite similarly about our Lady in Black. That she is breaking the rules in more than one way. That she is probably a widow yearning for transgressions that will take her out of the sobriety of her public mourning.
There’s also a lot of spontaneity, and perhaps a lack of pretentiousness to this scene. I love how the woman’s neck lurches forward in concentration and curiosity, her slouched posture overcome by her most basic instincts. I see this unflattering yet amusing pose as a victory of the body against the constructs of high social class which rely on repression and deep-seated hypocrisy.
At the same time, in the background across from her, a man is watching our fashionable lady through his binoculars. He’s the double.
The scene, aptly taking place at the Comédie-Française – a longstanding Parisian theater from the late seventeenth century that earned the nickname The House of Molière – reveals one of the tenets of past and present social dynamics: everyone is supposedly on their best behavior, as long as no one is looking.
But there’s one more irony hidden in here.
As you look at the Lady in Black and the man who is watching her, you realize that the cycle of seeing and being seen ripples outside the painting frame to you, who are equally invested in this peering game. And then you wonder who’s watching you.