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Vision, from "At the Opera," a painting by Mary Cassatt


Mary Cassatt’s painting, “At the Opera,” focuses on an elegant young woman at a theater or symphony hall. Before the lights go down, she is intent on spotting who else has attended. From her upper ring seat, she peers through opera glasses across the hall at other attendees; meanwhile, a gentleman in the background appears to be eyeing her! A few subthemes of Vision can be spotted from this painting.

Cassatt painting The painting hangs at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Eyeglasses: Many people are born with poor vision, or their vision deteriorates during their life, even to blindness. According to the Vision Council of America, approximately 75% of adults in the United States use some sort of vision correction. About 64% of them wear eyeglasses, and about 11% wear contact lenses, either exclusively, or with glasses. Nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism are among the conditions that can be corrected by glasses, contacts or otherwise. Whatever the visual defect, the person may visit an ophthalmologist (a medical doctor with specialized training) or an optometrist (with a Doctor of Optometry degree) for tests of their eyesight and a prescription. An optician grinds lenses according to the prescription and prepares a pair of eyeglasses (like what Raymond Burr wore in Rear Window. All parts of eyeglasses can be accessorized: rims, bridges, temples, lenses, color, temples, decorations, and more. Many eyeglasses use polarized lenses and variable refraction throughout the lens (obsoleting bi- and trifocals). No longer do people wear monocle’s and pince-nez’s (popular in the late 19th century, eyepieces that are supported without earpieces, by pinching the bridge of the nose).

Back in 1888, optician Edouard Kalt created the first glass contact lenses. They were heavy and covered the eye’s entire front surface. The welcome invention of the first soft contact lenses of hydrophilic hydrogel came in 1959. Permeable soft contacts can now be worn for days, almost unnoticeably, and are dramatically more comfortable. They can even be tinted.

Beauty of Appearance: Cassatt’s young lady exudes elegance and beauty. Perhaps the first thing someone would notice about her were her eyes. We find eyes attractive, neutral, or unattractive. Wide eyes spaced apart and balanced with the nose, with complementary lashes, eyebrows, eyelids, and makeup appeal to many. The shades of the iris range from dark black to light blue. We tend to associate light eyes with dwellers in cold climates, people with brown or black eyes with dark hair and swarthier complexions in warmer climes. Actors have become famed for their striking eyes, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, or Frank Sinatra.

Aspects that detract from attractiveness include bags under the eyes from lack of sleep or noticeable crow’s feet at the outward corners. Bloodshot eyes indicate problems such as sleeplessness, stress, or excessive drinking. Some people suffer from crossed-eyes – strabismus is the medical term generally for misaligned eyes – a condition that occurs in 3-5% of people. Eyes may turn inward (crossed aka esotropia), outward (splayed aka exotropia), or be vertically misaligned (hypertropia). In some cases, even, each eye may alternate between looking straight ahead and turning.

Make-up: Before going to the opera, the woman undoubtedly spent time enhancing her looks, including the area of her face around the eyes. Eyebrows can be plucked, penciled, tattooed, waxed, or powdered. Mascara on eyelashes creates a glamorous look of fullness and length. False eyelashes accentuate that look. Shadow highlight the eyelids, and sprinkles on them even more so. Eyeliner around the eyes make them appear larger. Concealer under the eyes (aka brightener) diminishes eyebags. Undoubtedly make-up artists and adept men and women take advantage of other cosmetic changes to enhance the appeal of eyes (e.g., plastic surgery, injections, or jewels at the ends of the eyes). Modulating and grooming all elements of the around the eyes can add to one’s physical allure.

Optical Illusions: Amazing as our eyes and vision are, at times they trick us. The perspective Cassatt achieves fools our eyes into perceiving depth on a flat canvas. The attentive gentleman clearly sits in the background. Trompe-l’œil is a term for this art technique. Psychologists have identified several images that most people misperceive, such as the Muller-Lyer optical illusion in which two similar lines appear to be of different lengths. As another example, the artist C. M. Escher created well-known paintings that feature endlessly rising staircases. Another illusion one, illustrating the Gestalt-effect, appears as either an old crone’s silhouette or a young woman’s.

optical illusion

We’ve all been transfixed by paintings where the eyes of a figure on the canvas seem to track your movement or a dress on the Internet whose uncertain color recently created a sensation. Holograms and stereoscopic viewers trick our eyes as do virtual reality goggles. Our eyes and brain are amazing, but they can be fooled.

Technology: Both of the watchers in the Cassatt painting are using vision-enhancing technology: opera glasses and a tiny spyglass. Binoculars, periscopes, sniper scopes, and night vision goggles could be included in this group. Many other devices allow us to “see” something even though it is not visible to the unaided eye. X-rays saved thousands of lives in World War I by detecting the location of bullets and bone breaks. MRIs, fMRIs, ultrasound, colonoscopy scopes (endoscopy more generally), and CAT scans peer inside bodies. The field is large, so radiologists are doctors who specialize in interpreting the results of medical imaging.

We also have radar to peer through clouds, and sonar through water. Muons, ions created in the upper atmosphere, allow muography to penetrate solid objects, such as pyramids. Sophisticated devices of all kinds gather data from various portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Some of them operate from platforms in space such as the Hubble telescope while others are ground-based radio wave detectors. Infrared astronomers use airborne telescopes, balloon payloads, or space telescopes to study the thermal radiation from celestial objects. A gamma-ray spectrometer measures the distribution of the intensity of gamma radiation. Geiger counters can “see” radiation. Electron scanning microscope allow us to visualize a strand of DNA or even individual atoms. Science has astonishingly advanced our “eyesight.”


We see a woman seeing and being seen. The painting shows eyeglasses, opera glasses, a miniature telescope, and perceived depth of vision. The key figures take advantage of technology to gossip by eye.

If you are interested in further thoughts on the concept of Thinking, consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, About.

We invite you to read about other paintings discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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