In the first few pages of Edith Wharton's 1920 "memoir," The Age of Innocence, she evokes the days of her youth in the 1880s with the unforgettable image of young May Welland glimpsed by her suitor in an opera box:
. . . slightly withdrawn behind these
brocaded matrons sat a young girl in white
with eyes ecstatically fixed on the stage-
lovers. As Madame Nilsson's "M'ama" thrilled
out above the silent house (the boxes always
stopped talking during the Daisy Song) a warm
pink mounted to the girl's cheek, mantled her
brow to the roots of her fair braids, and
suffused the young slope of her breast to the
line where it met a modest tulle tucker
fastened with a single gardenia. She dropped
her eyes to the immense bouquet of lilies-of-
the-valley on her knee, and Newland Archer
saw her white-gloved finger tips touch the
flowers softly. He drew a breath of
satisfied vanity and his eyes returned to the
stage. (The Age of Innocence, New York, 1970,
Virtually unknown as a theme before the Impressionists discovered it in the 1870s, the debutante in the opera box is now accepted as one of the most romantic subjects of nineteenth-century art. And although it remained a quintessential French subject and rare in American art except for Mary Cassatt, the quote from Edith Wharton shows how extensively it has pervaded the American cultural consciousness.
It was natural that Mary Cassatt, herself a newcomer in the rarified world of the Parisian avant-garde, should adopt this theme for her debut as an Impressionist in the group's fourth exhibition in 1879. Along with the two oils and two pastels of women at the theater listed in the catalogue, a fifth work, In the Box, was apparently entered at the last moment hors catalogue. A drawing (now lost) after the work was published in La Vie Moderne on May 1, while the exhibition was on view at Durand-Ruel's gallery, with the caption "Exposition des Indépendants." (figure a) One might suppose that the painting had just been finished and was rushed from Cassatt's easel to the gallery wall while the exhibition was already in progress.
Although none of the reviews mentions this work specifically, her theater scenes were greeted with high praise by the critics. George Lafenestre, in the conservative Revue des deux mondes, judged the Impressionists harshly in general, but made an exception for Degas and Cassatt:
M. Degas and Mlle. Cassatt are perhaps the
only artists who distinguish themselves in
this group of 'dependent' Independents, and
who give the only attractiveness and excuse
to this pretentious display of rough sketches
and childish daubs, in the middle of which
one is almost surprised to come across their
neglected works. Both have a lively sense of
the fragmented lighting in Paris interiors'
both find unique nuances of color to render
the flesh tints of women fatigued by late
nights and the rustling lightness of worldly
fashions. ("Les Expositions d'Art," Revue des
deux Mondes, May-June 1879, p. 481)
Cassatt's theater subjects might legitimately be said to have made her reputation that year as an Impressionist and consequently were the springboard for her long and distinquished career. As her proud father wrote back home to her brother in Philadelphia, "Everybody says now that in [the] future it dont matter what the papers say about her-- She is now known to the Art world as well as to the general public in such a way as not to be forgotten again so long as she continues to paint!!" (Robert Cassatt to Alexander Cassatt, 21 May 1879, as quoted in N. Mathews, Cassatt and Her Circle: Selected Letters, New York, 1984, p. 144)
Mary Cassatt had been a highly regarded art student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, which she entered at the age of sixteen. When she went to Europe in late 1865 her success at the Paris Salon and elsewhere in Italy and Spain convinced her to pursue her career abroad. Gaining a reputation as an anti-establishment rebel in the 1870s, she was invited by Degas to exhibit with the Impressionists and participated in the group shows of 1879, 1880, 1881 and 1886. She was the only American in the group although Whistler and Sargent were considered allies and were both friends of Cassatt's.
The theater pictures, including In the Box, were Cassatt's first forays into the Impressionist style and it is possible to see a progression from A Woman in Black at the Opera circa 1878, (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts) to In the Box. Whereas the same pose--a woman looking through opera glasses--is used in both, the latter shows greater complexity in the double figure composition, the bold pattern of shadows across the face and bust, and the increasingly light brushwork indicating a study of Morisot and Renoir.
Cassatt's feminist spirit, which many Parisians saw as an American trait, led her to depict the women not just as passive objects of the male gaze but as active observers of the performance on the stage as well as participants in the social drama enacted in the audience. The two young women seem to be drawn to the same engrossing point outside our field of vision and the closeness of their heads suggests a whispered commentary on what they see. By endowing her debutantes with an active intelligence, she has heightened the excitement and romance of the subject. As Nancy Mowll Mathews points out,
Unlike Degas's scrutiny of the performers--
singers, dancers, musicians--Cassatt's focus
is the audience. Her interest is almost
entirely in the romance suggested by
beautifully dressed young women watching and
being watched, playing with their fans and
bouquets, acting out their real-life dramas.
Cassatt had gravitated toward romantic themes
from the start. Her carnival and toreador
scenes foreshadowed the shyness, flirtation,
and reverie Cassatt caught so well in her
images of the modern debutantes appearing
nightly in Paris theaters. (Mary Cassatt:
A Life, New York, 1994, p. 145)
Cassatt continued to explore the subject throughout 1879 and into 1880 when she once again exhibited in the spring show of the Imrpessionists. However, most of her newest works on this theme were done in the medium of prints, primarily etchings. Perhaps inspired by the publication of the drawing after In the Box in La Vie Moderne, she had intended to publish another theater subject, In the Opera Box (No. 3) (Br. 22) as an original etching in the proposed fine art journal, Le Jour et la Nuit. The new journal, featuring articles on contemporary art and theater, was to be illustrated with prints by prominent Impressionist artists and such a subject by Cassatt would have been appropriate. Another soft-ground etching, Woman Seated in a Loge (Br. 23) appears to have been based on In the Box although the woman with the opera glasses is now seen at full length and alone. Unfortunately the journal was never launched, and soon afterwards Cassatt abandoned the theater subject both in paintings and prints for a wider variety of studies of contemporary women and eventually became famous for her depiction of the mother and child.
The theater pictures, therefore, comprise only a small group of eight major works, most of which entered French collections in the nineteenth century, including those of fellow artists Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin. Impressionist collectors Alexis Rouart, MM. Martin and Comantron, Chester Dale and Margarett Sergeant McKean acquired Cassatt theater subjects over the years. Today, they are in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In the Box had been purchased soon after it was displayed in the 1879 Impressionist exhibition by M. Doucet and through resale became one of the first works by Cassatt to be acquired by the Impressionist dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in 1881. In November 1883, Durand Ruel sold it to Cassatt's second cousin, Anna Riddle Scott, who had begun to assemble a collection of modern French and English paintings. Mrs. Scott was residing in Paris at the time with her children and her mother, Mary Dickinson Riddle, of whom Cassatt painted her most famous portrait, Lady at the Tea Table (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Although Mrs. Scott politely rejected the portrait of her mother, she was unwaveringly fond of In the Box, and it remained in her family to the present day.
Christie's is grateful to Nancy Mowll Mathews for contributing this catalogue essay.
This painting will be included in the Cassatt Committee's revision of Adelyn Dohme Breeskin's catalogue raisonné of the works of Mary Cassatt.
In the Box
Oil on canvas
Property from the Collection of EDGAR and HELEN HOPE MONTGOMERY SCOTT
Paris, France, Fourth Impressionist Exhibition, 1879
London, England, Durand-Ruel, 1882
London, England, Dowdeswell and Dowdeswells', Paintings, Drawings and Pastels by Members of 'La Société des Impressionistes,' 1883, no. 37 as Au Balcon
New York, Durand-Ruel, Exposition of Paintings, Pastels and Etchings by Miss Mary Cassatt, 1895, no. 32 as Au Théâtre
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by Representative Modern Artists, 1920, no. 10 as In the Theater
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Museum of Art, Cassatt Memorial Exhibition, 1927
Brooklyn, New York, The Brooklyn Museum, Leaders of American Impressionism: Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, J.H. Twachtman and J. Alden Weir, 1937, no. 20 as Au Balcon
Haverford, Pennsylvania, Haverford College, Mary Cassatt, 1845-1926, 1939, no. 7, illus. as Au Balcon
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Carnegie Institute, Survey of American Painting, 1940, no. 200 as Au Balcon
Chicago, Illinois, Art Institute of Chicago, Sargent, Whistler and Mary Cassatt, 1954, no. 6, illus., and travelling
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Acadamy of the Fine Arts, 150th Anniversary Exhibition, 1955, no. 177, illus.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Mary Cassatt, 1960
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Peale House Galleries, Pennsylvania Acadamy of the Fine Arts, Mary Cassatt, 1965, no. 10
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Mary Cassatt, 1966, no. 7, illus.
Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art, Mary Cassatt, 1970, no. 13, illus.
New York, Wildenstein, A Loan Exhibition 'One Hundred Years of Impressionism', 1970, no. 45, illus. as Dans la Loge
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Mary Cassatt and Philadelphia, 1985, no. 4, illus.
17¼ x 24½in. (43.8 x 62.2cm.)
"Miss Mary Cassatt," Art Amateur, vol. 32, no. 6, May 1895, no. 158 as Au Théâtre
"Philadelphia Honors Works of Mary Cassatt," Art News, vol. 25, no. 31, May 7, 1927, no. 2
F. Watson, "Philadelphia Pays Tribute to Mary Cassatt," The Arts, vol. 11, no. 6, June 1927, p. 289, illus.
F. A. Sweet, Miss Mary Cassatt: Impressionist from Philadelphia, Norman, Oklahoma, 1966, no. 86, plate 9
K. Flint, The Impressionists in England: The Critical Reception, London, 1984, p. 45
N. M. Mathews, Cassatt and Her Circle: Selected Letters, New York, 1984, pp. 163-165, 166-167, 174-176
Mary Cassatt, New York, 1987, nos. 40, 48, p. 40, illus.
Durand-Ruel, Paris, France (Probably acquired from M. Doucet, April 1881)
Mrs. Thomas A. Scott, Philadelphia 1883
By descent in the family to the present owner