The second half of the XIX century is known in the history of art as the time of modernism. With the emergence of its major movement in painting – Impressionism – the meaning of art and ways of performance were reconsidered. The article entitled “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity” by Griselda Pollock provides the insight into the contribution of female artists to the development of modern art. Dispelling masculinist myths of modernism, Pollock attempts to analyze both the way women were depicted and the way women depicted themselves referring to Impressionism. Due to different social roles, male and female artists had different manners of interpreting the person’s image on canvas. Pollock compares and contrasts the two views on the image of females as well as analyzes the reasons and consequences of social trends occurring in the XIX century. In defense of her arguments, the scholar provides actual images of paintings executed by both male and female Impressionists. This paper presents the overview of Pollock’s article and analyzes the selected painting entitled A Box at the Italian Theatre through the prism of author’s arguments regarding female art of modernity.
The article “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity” is full of bright examples of the opposition between the genders. Pollock touches the subject of social division and refers to the boundaries designed for female individuals. These boundaries are defined through specific types of the location and the specific manner of space measurement. Pollock mentions two types of locations that define two types of women. The first type used in the depiction of lower class women is presented by bars and brothels. Females who were eulogized and associated with virtue were commonly depicted in domestic settings. The luxurious bourgeois lifestyle enabled modernist artists to locate them in certain public places such as parks or theaters. In terms of the location, paintings executed by female artists represent true insights into women’s daily routines and are considered by the scholar to be more truthful and objective.
The analyzed article demonstrates peculiarities of space division to show females’ limitedness. Modern art often metaphorized space presenting women in juxtaposition to other subjects or as individuals lacking freedom. Pollock refers to the paintings by Manet, Renoir, Morisot, and Cassatt to exemplify this theory. The division of society is reflected in the way female figures were depicted. Pollock claims that in Europe in general and in France in particular, women were commonly represented as sexual objects rather than deep individuals. Moreover, it was presumably the prerogative of male artists to use this style of transference of one’s personality. The scholar discusses a specific feeling of content from observing women in erotic and humiliated condition. For female artists, it was unacceptable to refer to such vulgar settings and images.
The painting selected for the analysis is A Box at the Italian Theatre (1874) by Eva Gonzales. Depicting a man and woman at the theater, it presents the art technique and style typical of Impressionism. It exemplifies the modernist attempt of “instantaneous representation of atmosphere” with clear undisguised brushstrokes and lack of smooth gradations of colors. The viewer can see vivid spots of bright and pure colors on the skin or clothes of depicted people as well as on the secondary elements of the composition such as the curtain or flowers. Dark colors fuse into the single black background erasing the outlines of man’s clothes. The painting lacks traditional symmetry and consistency.
According to Pollock, the subject matter of paintings was typically placed in domestic or bourgeois settings. The analyzed image supports this idea. Gonzales’s painting presents a woman and man at the theater. Although the artist uses public settings, this type of environment differs from the one applied by male artists. Such type of settings is peculiar to female Impressionist artists since it refers to “those social rituals which constituted polite society.” It also defines the status of the depicted people – they belong to the noble bourgeois class.
As for the spatial order, Pollock indicates ambiguities and metaphors as the major features of female Impressionists’ art. One of the elements of the analyzed painting is the averted head. The two depicted people look in different directions, and no one’s gaze is directed to the viewer. In fact, it is also possible to talk about the metaphorical juxtaposition of these people. The woman’s gaze is directed to the stage, she is absorbed with the play, while the man is obviously preoccupied with something else. It seems that the artist attempted to emphasize the divergence between the views of men and women. The opposition between the two major figures is also obvious in the choice of colors. The woman is painted in light colors. The soft white skin, sky-blue dress with light lace, and snow-white gloves vividly stand out against the dark background. In contrast, the male figure is portrayed in dark colors and practically dissolves in the dim background of the theater box. The opposition between light and dark colors underlines the divergences in the nature and virtue of the two genders. The dominance of light tones in the depiction of the woman, which are commonly associated with purity, may be treated as an attempt to eulogize the image of the entire feminine community. The female’s vulnerability and dependency on social norms are marked by her gaze directed down. According to Pollock, such subordinate and modest behavior was always displayed in public places.
The appearance of the painting coincides with the time when femininity was equated with sexuality, visibility, and restriction. The female figure in the picture wears a low-cut dress and possesses amiable facial and physical features. She embodies attractiveness and acts as an object of admiration or desire. However, the artist depicts the female figure as the one deprived of complete personal freedom. The male companion placed in the top right-hand corner stands above her and looks like a guardian. Evident masculine facial features add the sense of personal importance and power that controls everything.
The proportions of central female figures and their interrelation with other elements and figures were important to Impressionists. Pollock states that woman’s outlines occupy the central part of the painting. The female’s figure and her daily routine fuse into the solitary image, and there is little space devoted to other objects in order not to distract the viewer. According to Pollock, “Women depicted function as subjects of their own looking or their activity, within highly specified locations of which the viewer becomes a part.” Gonzales places the female figure in the center of her composition. Apart from the depiction of the woman, the artist shows the details of her bourgeois life such as a luxurious dress, jewelry, white gloves, flowers, etc. Looking at the heavy theatrical curtain and binocular in her hand, viewers immediately immerse themselves in the atmosphere of Italian theater.
To conclude, modernist art was marked by the social division between men and women. This division was present both on the level of the artist and the level of the artwork. The analyzed painting by Eve Gonzales demonstrates features of Impressionist painting techniques as well as compositional peculiarities. It supports Pollock’s arguments regarding limitedness of themes available to female artists. The painting shows the presence of metaphors and juxtaposition of elements that were peculiar to female artists.