THE FEMALE EXPERIENCE. Women artists confirmed, but also expanded, and occasionally subverted received ideas about their proper sphere. Mary Cassatt’s family wealth afforded her the privilege of setting up a household in Paris where she could enjoy great personal independence (her parents and sister soon joined her). At the same time, Cassatt (1844-1926) was unable to paint the café-concerts, the bars, the brothels, races, and the backstage theatrical scenes that distinguished the work of Manet and Degas—such places were off-limits to a respectable single woman. Instead, Cassatt chose to paint the public, and, later, the domestic, lives of women—as mothers, sisters, and members of privileged social networks with which she had intimate familiarity. In a series of works set in public spaces, Cassatt painted young upper-class women shyly presenting themselves to the gaze of the public as they emerge into consciousness of their femininity. These works transmute the familiar theme of the female on display for the male gaze by portraying the female experience instead; rather than mere objects of desire and aesthetic control, Cassatt’s women seem fully alive, responsive, and psychologically complex. And in one instance, In The Loge, the woman is the one who looks, training her opera glasses on the stage. Dressed in the black proper for older bourgeois (or prosperous upper-middle-class) women in public, she is intent on observing the world around her. In the background, from the other side of the loge, an older man in evening dress directs his opera glass at the woman in a knowing commentary on the frequency of the theme of men looking at women. Here, however, the woman assumes an active stance, leaning forward with confidence as she claims the privilege of looking openly, a curious, fully present subject rather than an object of another’s gaze.
—Angela L. Miller, et al., American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity (2008)