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Keep Smiling

Cassatt, Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, 1879, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Finally a smile! It's funny, but I never really noticed how serious the subjects of other paintings in the exhibition were until I saw this painting of a young woman at the opera. And why not? She's at the Paris Opéra House and dressed to the nines. Her formal pink evening gown is tastefully accessorized with a single strand of pearls, a corsage, and a flower in her hair. The look is completed with a fan and a pair of ever-present gloves, all of which further signal her youth and unmarried status by their lack of ostentation.

And we can even tell what she's directing her smile towards. If you look behind her to the left, you'll notice that you see her reflection. So we're actually looking at a mirror and seeing precisely what she sees: balconies filled with well-dressed people who, in turn, are also looking out at each other. And while this might make one feel self-conscious, this lady's relaxed posture and expression demonstrate that she's actively enjoying herself.

Cassatt first showed this work at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition in 1879, the same year it was painted. Viewers at the time noticed the colors—gray, in particular— she used to paint the subject's pale skin. Although it was probably staged in a studio, Cassatt translated both the gas-lit interior and the mirrored reflections from the gilt trimmed balconies, creating an immediacy and almost palpable sense of anticipation. It's hard not to wonder. . . what happens next to this young ingenue?

Image Credit: Mary Cassatt. Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, 1879. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bequest of Charlotte Dorrance Wright, 1978.