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More About Upper Class Women

Images of upper class women in the nineteenth century consists of women in their domestic and public life, attending concerts and opera fashionably attired as the proper and elite Parisienne. Their culture is epitomized by the capitalism and materialism of nineteenth century Paris where they are seen in all their fineries in privileged surroundings. Upper class society was defined as the nobility, the aristocracy, and the new wealthy elite. The bourgeois held as their model, the images of the upper class family as the virtuous ideal of their class. In many of the paintings depicting upper class women, it is her surrounding environment that the artist depicts as symbolic of the joys of domesticity and social standing. Upper class women did not work, and were able to hire many domestic helpers spending up to 25% of the household income on wages for the servants.

A major entertainments for the upper classes was found at the opera where society gathered to display the wealth and privileges of their class. The women in the loges or box seats (which cost thousands of francs, well above the means of the average people) are draped in the lavish fashions (link to fashions) of the latest styles and bedecked with expensive jewels which are on display, to be seen and admired. (link to Wives of the Artists;frn05098) As a member of the upper-middle class, Cassatt (link to Mary Cassatt at the Etruscan Gallery) represents one of the large numbers of single women of France who elected to remain single. The model for her paintings was her domestic environment and her subjects were often her family members as seen in "Le Figaro" (link find number) which portrays her mother. One of the genres that Mary Cassatt (link) and Berthe Morisot (link) favored in depicting women of upper class was at the Paris opera which they would have attended as upper-middle class women and artists. Cassatt's construction of the upper class woman at the opera is almost always focused on a single woman in the loge. She is an image that is on display, to be seen even as she herself is engaged in the act of looking. The classic composition used in Cassatt's The Loge is also used by Edgar Degas (link) and Renoir. (link)

Some images of the upper class family is downright disturbing. In Degas' The Bellini Family, (link to Portrait of Bellini Family;frn06016) a portrait of an upper class family of the artists relatives, image of the woman embodies the notion of decorum and respectability that the bourgeois-upper class people strove to maintain and project to the public. The scene is imbued with an atmosphere of cool detachment, completely without emotions which is symbolic of many upper class families of the time. Other images of upper class women depict domesticity and engaged in leisure activity. (link to La Dejeuner dans la sevre; frn06100, Piano Lesson;frn08047, The Balcony;frn06089, Skating;frn07012).

In the "Carriage at the Races" (link to frn06040) Degas, portrays a bourgeois family on their day out. The intimate group of people in the carriage suggests a portrait of a closely knit family. The woman with the child in her arms is not the mother of the child but the wet nurses hired to nurse the child and was, as a matter of course, and one of the many servants in an upper class household. The mother of the child, looks on with concern at her child as she shields the wet nurse with the umbrella in an attempt to provide her with privacy while her husband turns to look at the scene. In this one scene we can see the effect of wealth which provided the upper class family with a carriage at their disposal for an outing to the races, and a wet nurse for their child.

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