See and Be Seen

Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is not simply a marble sculpture in its own right, but rather one part of a grandiose display of Baroque drama and Bernini’s unsurpassed innovation and skill. The onlookers are members of the Cornaro family, who commissioned the chapel, and by placing them in a theater box, Bernini sets up a relationship between the main sculpture and the viewer as that of a stage and audience. He fused architecture and sculpture in an unprecedented manner that exemplified the Baroque ideals of drama and ornamentation but took them to an even more intense level. The sculpture is unmistakably sexual in nature, which is such a bold move on his part that it fits with the already over-the-top setting.

Box Seats at the Theater by Félix Vallotton takes the opposite viewpoint, and the audience members are now the focus of the painting, gazing down as we observe unnoticed. The angle is strange in the sense that it’s hard to imagine an actual seat where the viewer is positioned, which might have been intentional on the part of the artist. Vallotton’s extensive work with woodcuts seems to have influenced his clean lines and minimal, yet effective, composition. The one shadow coming from the lady’s glove subtly anchors the scene to reality, but such a stylized depiction of a common subject leaves an eerie and unresolved feeling.

Lautrec’s La Loge is characteristic of the artist’s fascination with the Parisian crowd that frequented brothels, nightclubs, and theaters.

The performance was only a small part of the theater experience, and most people went in order to see and be seen. The balconies and box seats, as many of these works depict, were the ideal place to observe who was sitting with whom, who was not attending, and who was wearing what. Mary Cassatt’s At the Opera portrays this dynamic in a way that highlights the compositional nuances that appealed to artists at the time. Looking takes on a more complex meaning, as we are not sure whether the woman is looking at the stage or at someone in the audience, and the man in the distance staring in our direction remains a mystery. Our own viewpoint with respect to the woman is also questionable, as Cassatt further exploits the ambiguity of observation at the theater.