Sunday, May 22, 2011

Edgar Degas - Interior

Edgar Degas, Interior, 1868-1869
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)
I finally got a chance to see one of the most intriguing paintings we studied in Impressionism this semester, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Friday evening.  This painting that is all about ambiguity is incredibly fascinating because it can be read as a critique about searching for the narrative in reading and experiencing paintings .  Although it seems to be a painting loaded with meaning, there are no clear clues or answers to any of the questions we typically ask of a painting such as this.

It is the scene of a starkly decorated room that seems to be lacking the personal effects that would be seen in a bedroom of this period inhabited by a gentleman and a partly clad woman.   The room contains a single bed, feminine wallpaper, a dresser with a map hanging over it and a table in the middle with an open sewing box, the silk interior illuminated by the lamp causing our eye to focus on it as the center of attention.  While the gentleman has only removed his hat and placed it on the dresser, the woman is in her undergarments with her corset strewn across the floor by the man.  We know he is of the bourgeois class due to his clothes but have no idea to her social status.  Part of the confusion is due to the mixing up of gender specific objects with their owners.  Typically the woman's clothing would be near her and the clothing or objects relating to the man would be near him reinforcing each gender's identities.  In this painting, Degas has depicted the woman's garments on the bed and the floor near the man while his top hat and the map on the wall (a very male object since they would be the one's who would go exploring the world) are all the way on the other side of the room closer to the woman.

The sewing box would refer to a woman's purity, virginity and doing her duty; in this painting she has set down her sewing which may be a sign of her loosing her virginity, or she could just be a seamstress.  At this time, there was consistent association in poetry and prose between sewing or embroidery and artifice.Degas who was famously known for saying 'Art is vice. You don't marry it, you rape it.  Whoever says art says artifice' could be using the sewing box to reinforce this issue.

The single bed, in the room, perfectly made up, might be pointing to this being her room as someone with a position in his employ.  The room itself seems like a domestic interior but it could also be a hotel room because of its impersonal decor. In which case they could be an unmarried couple having an assignation or a couple who is traveling.  The artist has not given us specific enough clues to figure out the relationship between the couple or the relevance of the interior they are standing in.

The dramatic lighting and the use of chiaroscuro as well as the tilted perspective of the room all add to the theatricality of this painting. The visual distortion of spaces and figural proportions in order to achieve a more expressive effect was called "a perspective of feeling" by Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran, who was well known in Degas' circle.2  Degas' distorted perspective of the room heightens the emotional resonance in the painting.

Although the man which is the dominant figure whose shadow looms up and above, is aiming his controlling male gaze in the woman's direction, there is nothing in his look or casual stance that suggests any kind of a violent commentary.  Even though we can't see the expression on the woman's face, she has turned away from him in such a way that the discord between the two figures becomes obvious. There was a belief at this time that by looking at a person's physiognomy, you could tell about his nature.  Degas did paint the male protagonist's ears pointy referring to the physiognomy of a satyr, which was a man with an insatiable appetite for sex.  The sexual undertones are present in the painting without a certain narrative.

This painting was titled 'the Rape'  after it's first public showing 35 years after it was painted.  Some art historians interpreted it as a literary work, associated with Emile Zola's Therese Raquin.   But according to Susan Sidlauskas in her essay "Resisting Narrative:  The Problem of Edgar Degas's Interior" if there was a tale in Interior, Degas twisted it beyond recognition.3

Edgar Degas did not exhibit this painting and kept it in his possession until 1904 when he sold it at Galerie  Durand-Ruel.  No one seems to know why he painted such a scene or what he was trying to say but the painting does contain elements Degas deemed important. The issue of disconnect, Degas' association of sexuality and art with artifice, incorporating "a perspective of feeling", are all used to great effect in Interior, helping to further defy any kind of a logical explanation for this puzzling painting.   It seems to have a story that wants to be told but Degas refuses to give us the narrative, challenging us in our encounter with the visual phenomena set before us.

1  Susan Sidlauskas, Resisting Narrative:  The Problem of Edgar Degas's Interior, The Art Bulletin December 1993, Volume LXXV number 4, 691
2  Ibid., 686
3  Ibid., 676


  1. Sedef, I wanted to take this opportunity, to tell you how very much I enjoy your blog. It is so much more than a 'blog', and rather like an elegant art collector's magazine; the kind that are richly appointed with beautiful paper stock, divinely printed reproductions of important works of art, and eloquently written text.
    Your 'articles' are nothing less than fascinating; a tribute to your talent as a writer and artist.
    I am grateful to have crossed paths with you, via Facebook. It was generous of you to post the link to this site.
    Know that there are many of us out here, that will read every word you write here, even though we may not be able to post a comment.
    Best wishes for your continued success,
    Mac (Michelle)

  2. Michelle,

    Thank you so much for your encouraging comment. I started to write this blog, because I had to share my passion with the world. To know that I am actually reaching like minded, creative people and to get such positive feedback is such a huge reward. I truly appreciate it.



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