The Impressionists – Putting Women in the Picture

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A note on the text: I’ve been writing on Impressionism in 19th century Paris through a mini-series. If you haven’t already, it might be beneficial to read the first two introductory parts before delving into this article. To contextualise The Impressionists, please read hereTo discover Le Flâneur, please read here

In relation to men, a woman’s sex, class and status would define her role in society. Her occupation would be to serve either within own private, domestic space or out in the public sphere where her respectability would come under scrutiny. Baudelaire typifies a male dominated society as he describes a masculine alertness of bearing, certainty of behaviour and air of supremacy in the ‘manner’ and ‘attitudes’ of the dandy[1], It was he who possessed the social mobility to gain entry into all aspects of society, which is reflected in the work of the male artist. Renoir and Édouard Manet’s (1832-1883) women in ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergere’, 1882 and ‘La Loge’, 1874 are stamped with the idiom of their trade and exist for public pleasure; as a woman artist, Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) would have been sensitive to these distinctions and shows women within the apparent bounds of convention. This female confinement is shown in ‘Lydia at the Tapestry Loom’, 1880-81 and informs the viewer of the ‘female gaze’[2] running parallel to its male counterpart.


Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882, Courtauld Gallery, London.

A sense of order is imposed in these paintings focusing on women by pictorial boundaries within the frame[3]. The women are seen from behind a barrier and occupy a confined space: Manet creates this by placing a bar maid in a frame of horizontals and verticals; the component parts of the bar form lines which mark out a boundary around the figure. A pictorial flatness presses the bar maid forwards, leaving little negative space behind where she is situated and this makes her an extension of the lines of bottles and surfaces which give the scene its vertical rise and horizontal balance.


Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Loge, 1874, Courtauld Gallery, London.

In ‘La Loge’ an opera box frames and contains the woman, though this is attempted, her sleeves manage to spill out over as she leans in and interrupts the space entered. The arrangement of furnishings in ‘Lydia at the Tapestry Loom’ and abstract angle of the painting close the woman into the scene as though she herself were an ornamental addition to the domestic room at her feminine occupation. The deliberate framing and confinement of women in these paintings appears to highlight their assigned roles in society: Renoir’s, to decorate the arm of a man, Manet’s to serve as a commodity behind the bar and Cassatt’s to maintain an unblemished reputation as ‘angel of the house’[4] within the female sphere.


Manet, Renoir and Cassatt give an awareness of the separate spheres ideology[5] which existed in the 19th century and limited the social mobility of women in different environments both public and private. The passivity with which Manet’s bar maid stares directly out from the painting arrests the viewer: as a working class woman she is subordinated to serve. Her world is limited to behind the bar and though self-reliant, she is dependent on the custom of men patronising her existence as an additional commodity[6].


Mary Cassatt, Lydia at the Tapestry Loom, 1881, Flint Institute of Arts.

In contrast, the appearance of the woman in ‘La Loge’ is projected and openly exposed to public scrutiny; the public sphere is male dominated and a woman’s place in it subjects her to their pleasure, be this as a decorative entity or a sexual body. Cassatt paints her sister Lydia enclosed within middle middle class respectability: the contradictions of male-female politics would not allow a woman of polite society to parade herself as a prostitute would, she would have to occupy herself in a domestic capacity and adhere to her prescribed gender role. Indeed, Lydia works at her tapestry loom away from the world of men, in her own intimate sphere.


The Street merchant in the rue Mouffetard, Paris, 1896.

Impressionist painting as an expression of modernity show scenes of leisure in contemporary Paris, replacing the Salon aesthetic or classical or elevated imagery with subjects relevant to the age. The diversions of Paris are captured with an immediacy and the technique of Degas and Renoir fractures to achieve the incoherence, visual angles and halation of a snap shot. Views of society across and according to gender and class are given by artists male and female, which serve to capture the conditions and various states of modernity as it would have been experienced under each gaze.

Thank You-2

Killing the Angel in the House here…
Women and Sexuality in ‘Kubla Khan’ here…
The Female Gothic in The Yellow Wallpaper here…

You can tweet me @she_noted, gain little insights in pictures from @she.noted or find my blog’s facebook page @shenoted – it’s always so lovely to hear from you!


Sources Used: 

[1] C. Baudelaire and T. Mayne, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays: Arts and Letters (Phaidon, 1995).

[2] Z. Eyres, ‘Reclaiming Impressionism: How female Impressionist painters challenged the status quo’, Kaleidoscope, Vol. 6, No. 2 (2014), pp. 89-94.

[3] D. Carrier, High Art: Charles Baudelaire and the Origins of Modernist Painting (Penn State Press, 2010), p. 61.

[4] C. Patmore, The Angel in The House, 1851.

[5] K. Hughes, ‘Gender roles in the 19th century’, British Library, Articles, Discovering Romantics and Victorians, [accessed 2018].

[6] E. Pappada, ‘Manet: A fictitious account of the woman in Bar of the Folies-Bergère’, Concordia Undergraduate Journal of Art History, [accessed 2018].

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