Breaking Down Art History: Woman as a Spectacle in Art

Mary Cassatt was an American Impressionist in the mid 1800’s. Her subject matter mainly included women in leisure activities, or sometimes in the privacy of their homes living a domestic lifestyle. In one painting of hers, The Woman in Black at the Opera, Cassatt’s subject is a woman dressed in black using her Opera glasses to view the opera taking place on stage. In the background, we can see a man using his opera classes to gaze at the woman, making her his spectacle. Not only does he make her the spectacle, but we, as viewers, gazing upon the woman, are also partaking in the same activity as the man.

What is the point of all of this?

Well, according to feminist theory, “Man has put himself at the center of the universe as the only real subject, the only true thinking being, while woman is an object to be admired, feared, used, simply looked at, or ignored” (Venturino). We can argue that the woman here is there to be admired by the man in the background, as it is implied by patriarchal society. Rather than focusing his attention to the stage, his eyes are focused on her. According to Whitney Chadwick, author of “Women, Art, and Society”, “Feminist theory has often held to the premise that the viewing field is organized for a male subject who exercises power through looking, and in this way, asserting visual control over the objects of his desire (usually female).”

Not only does Cassatt’s painting feed into the patriarchal idea as the woman as a spectacle, but it also delves into the realms of a consumer-oriented society. We as viewers are also staring at the woman, who is just enjoying her time at the opera. During this time, the focus of leisure activities in art were becoming what people wanted to see more of, thus causing artists to produce more of what people wanted to see, rather than what they themselves wanted to create.

So, what should we take away from this?

It is important to understand the background of the artworks that we admire. What inspired the artist? Why did the artist paint this? During the 1800’s, it was restricted for female artists the hang out with their male colleagues, so many of the famous female Impressionists, such as Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, typically only painted other women or women with their children. It is important to understand that, because of these restrictions, it influenced what those like Morisot and Cassatt painted, why they painted it, and who was to admire it.


Chadwick, W., & Frigeri, F. (2020). Women, art, and Society. Thames and Hudson.

Venturino, S. J. (2013). The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Literary Theory and criticism. Alpha, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Published by PrincessGroose

Fine Arts and ECM Major Creative Writing Minor Artist, Friend, Gamer, Island Wanderer, Shark Enthusiast. Protect Our Oceans.

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