All ETDs from UAB

Advisory Committee Chair

Jessica Dallow

Advisory Committee Members

Heather McPherson

Tanja Jones

Document Type

Thesis

Date of Award

2013

Degree Name by School

Master of Arts (MA) College of Arts and Sciences

Abstract

This thesis examines Cecilia Beaux's painting "Sita and Sarita" (1893-1894) as it expresses the conflicts of the women's rights movement, changing gender roles, and shifts in the perception of female sexuality and intellectualism in the late nineteenth century. The argument hinges on the quality of the woman's gaze and the anthropomorphic nature of the cat, which encompass growing interests in and fears of female mental capacity, sexuality, and animality. Examining how the portrait functions within three major traditions--depictions of young women in white dresses; women lost in thought or in reverie; and portraits of people with their pets, specifically women with cats--helps to illuminate the significance of the sitter's gaze and the cat. Locating the painting within the legacy of the Aesthetic movement's "white paintings" serves to illustrate how "Sita and Sarita" borrows this visual language. A brief history of the development of pet-keeping practices illustrates how pets took on new roles within the domestic realm. Discussion of Edouard Manet's Olympia as a source for the cat in "Sita and Sarita" identifies concerns about sexual self-possession. Referencing nineteenth-century Egyptomania, the thesis argues that the black cat alludes to Cleopatra as a figure of sex, power, and female ambition, and to the goddess Bastet, a mother and protector, thus creating a tension between the female and the feline as threatening seductress and natural caretaker. Examining popular literature of the nineteenth century, namely Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-Paper," Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" series, and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat" illuminates the implications of the sitter's reverie and the symbolic power of the cat. Beaux's life and writings support this new interpretation of "Sita and Sarita," as she was an independent, unmarried career-person who broke many boundaries as a woman while maintaining the view from an early age that women and men were ultimately equal.

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