Analysis of 3 paintings which demonstrate the way the political, economic and social changes affected the perception of women in the 19th Century

Please note this is a re-worked analysis after my tutor’s report and I have added a short reflection at the end.


IMG_6308Alexandre Cabanel  of Mary Victoria Leiter. 1887.  Oil on canvas. Size is 51 x 37 inches (129.5 x 94 cm).

degas and balletThe Dance Class by Edgar Hiliare  Degas.1874. Oil on canvas. Size 32 7/8 x 30 3/8 inches (83.5 x 77.2 cm).

bar at the folies begereEduoard Manet of the Bar at the Folies-Bergere – this is referred to in World History of Art. 1882.  Oil on canvas. Size:  37.8 x 51.2 inches (96 x 130 cm).



During the 19th century society consisted of a distinct split in how men and women were expected to behave with women – women were expected to belong to the private or domestic sphere of life whilst men were in the public sphere such as politics, commerce, religion and academia.  Consequentially women were expected by men to be delicate and demure and also subordinate to them which was not helped by the artistic works which had a culture of depicting women as objects for men’s desire or possession.  However women were increasingly seen in public spaces including that of the working environment.

Cabanel was sought by the wealthy Americans and the women wanted him to paint their portraits in a manner which befitted their exulted status in society. At the time of the Mary Leiter’s portrait she was 17 and was introduced to society a year later – in common with many wealthy English families the marriage to an American woman of economic means often saved country houses from the effect of many former workers going to work in the cities or industries as new opportunities arose.  In the upper echelons of society the I have to consider the fact that women could be portrayed as trophies to hang prettily on their wealthy husband’s arms or to entertain their guests and in this aspect the portraits of these wealthy women also displayed the fashionable dresses that they wore – the portraits are a display of wealth and reduce the importance of the sitter to one of a commodity and by that I mean that the patron, usually the husband or father, had stated his ownership of the woman in question.

Degas demonstrates the hard and realistic life of the ballet and the fairy tale escape the women sought from the drudgery of their economically and socially deprived lives was just another illusion. As I look at a variety of Degas’s works on the ballet they are always dynamic in their composition – by cropping the figures, the angularity and use of different viewpoints or compressed spaces he portrays the sense of movement and high level of physical activity that a ballet class or performance requires.  The dancers of Degas’s paintings are just that i.e. dancers and not sexual objects to be desired or visited by the upper class men of Paris society – he captures the women working hard at their craft either in a variety of poses caught mid-movement or stretching.  What is intriguing as I learn more about Degas is that he was a misogynist and referred to women included dancers as animals but his portrayal of the ballet seems to put them on a pedestal and not portray the ugliness he saw in reality.

On the other hand Manet has portrayed the barmaid as she was perceived by high society through the use phallic symbolism throughout the painting – the trapeze artist in the top left is a symbol of sexual activity, the chandeliers are round and vaginal and even the bottles are phallic shapes and this means that the work is one of both selling the drinks of the bar but also one of seduction in a world where the woman was seen as a sexual object for the enjoyment of men. As I look again I note a disparity between the reflections in the mirror and that of the reality – the positions of the reflection Suzon is not in the correct place and the man who is reflected in the mirror would have his back to the spectator at the front of the picture.  Suzon has a look of melancholy on her face as she is clearly unhappy in her life and her locket signifies a life away from the bar.  It is interesting to literally reflect on the inspiration for this work which is Las Meninas by Velazquez which Manet much admired – the latter recreated his use of reflections to portray a world only that only exists in mirrors.

To conclude it seems that each artist approached their subjects very different – Degas wanted to portray the women he saw as working women in a tough environment and not as sexual objects whereby Manet’s barmaid, Suzon was a woman to be desired and used sexually by upper society men but then Cabanel portrayed a woman owned by a father but at the time his daughter was effectively up for sale as the portrait was designed to appeal to a future husband.


I have re-worked this analysis very much based on my tutor’s advice in her feedback for this assignment.  Although I have now gone considerably over the 500 word limit I feel the analysis is considerably better and I understand the points and issues around each painting and each artist concerning how women were portrayed in the 19th Century.  Re-working this analysis has enabled me to look at the paintings with a very different viewpoint and also look closer at different details – this is something I have discovered through re-working some of my course work in general and has been incredibly useful.  I am now understanding the different aspects to a work of art and how to look at the piece – it is looking beyond what the eye sees to what the painter is trying to portray and tell the viewer about the life he sees before him.

Word count: 739


A&E Television Networks. 2016. Edouard Manet Biography [online]. [Date Accessed:  July 2016].  Available from:

ArtMagick. 1996-2015.  Alexandre Cabanel [online]. [Date Accessed:  July 2016]. Available from:

Art Story Foundation. 2016.  Eduoard Manet French Draughtsman and Painter [online].  [Date Accessed:  July 2016].  Available at:

Conde Nast. 2014.  Degas and the Dancers [online].  [Date Accessed:  November 2016].  Available from:

Encyclopedia of Art Education. [no date].  A Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1881-2) [online]. [Date Accessed:  July 2016].   Available from:

Hamilton, A. 2015. Manet and woman: Portraying Life [online]. [Date Accessed:  July 2016].  Available from:

Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2000-2016.  The Dance Class [online]. [Date Accessed:  July 2016].   Available at:

Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2000-2016. Edgar Degas (1834-1917):  Painting and Drawing [online].  [Date Accessed:  July 2016].   Available from:

Musee d’Orsay. 2016. Edgar Degas The Ballet Class [online].  [Date Accessed:  July 2016].  Available from:

National Trust Images. [no date]. Mary Victoria Leiter, Lady Curzon (1870-1906) [online]. [Date Accessed:  July 2016].  Available from:

Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide. 2016.  Alexandre Cabanel’s Portraits of the American ‘Aristocracy’ of the Early Gilded Age [online].  [Date Accessed:  July 2016].  Available from:–alexandre-cabanels-portraits-of-the-american-aristocracy-of-the-early-gilded-age

Social Classes – Paris in the 19th Century. [no date]. Social Classes [online].  [Date Accessed:  July 2016].   Available from:

Spalding, F. 2015. The French Connection:  how Manet changed the face of British Art [online].  [Date Accessed:  July 2016].  Available from:


Trachtman, P. 2003. Degas and his Dancers [online].  [Date Accessed:  July 2016].  Available from:

Victoria and Albert Museum. 2016.  Romantic Ballet [online].  [Date Accessed:  July 2016].  Available from:

Wolin, E. 2013. Degas: Agency in Images of Women [online]. [Date Accessed:  July 2016].   Available from: 2002-2016.  Dance Class I Edgar Degas [online]. [Date Accessed:  July 2016].    Available from:

http://www.Manet.Org. 2010. Edouard Manet and his paintings [online].  [Date Accessed:  July 2016].  Available from:

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