Edgar Degas: Narrative paintings from 1866

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Sulking (c 1869), oil on canvas, 32.4 x 46.4 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. The Athenaeum.

Edgar Degas started his career as a history painter, and by 1865 had completed a series of five works intended to launch that career. In the latter 1860s, Degas painted more portraits, and started to paint ‘modern life’. However, between 1867-1871, he painted three works which show human emotions in enigmatic and probably narrative settings: Melancholy, Interior, and Sulking.

Of the three, Melancholy appears purely emotional, showing a young woman who is stricken by grief and profoundly melancholic, with no reference to any story as such.

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Interior (‘The Rape’) (1868-9), oil on canvas, 81.3 x 114.3 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

Degas’ Interior (1868-9), also known as The Interior and even The Rape, appears strongly narrative, but has so far defied all attempts to produce a reading consistent with its details. Having described the painting earlier, I will here suggest some starting points for possible readings.

A man and a woman are in a bedroom together. She is at the left, partly kneeling down, facing to the left, and partially (un)dressed. He is at the right, fully dressed in street clothes, standing in front of the door, with his hands thrust deep into his trouser pockets.

The woman’s outer clothing is placed at the foot of the bed, and her corset has been hurriedly or carelessly cast onto the floor beside the bed. She clearly arrived in the room before the man, removed her outer clothing, and at some stage started to undress further, halting when she was down to her shift or chemise. Alternatively, she may have undressed completely, and at this moment have dressed again as far as her chemise.

Just behind the woman is a small occasional table, on which there is a table-lamp and a small open suitcase. Some of the contents of the suitcase rest over its edge. In front of it, on the table top, is a small pair of scissors and other items from a small clothes repair kit or ‘housewife’.

The suitcase appears to belong to the woman; when she arrived, she placed it on the table, and opened it. This indicates that she was expecting to stay in the bedroom overnight, and brought a change of clothing and travelling kit including the housewife.

The man is obstructing the door, the only visible exit to the room. Although he looks as if he may have come no further across the room, his top hat rests, upside down, on top of the cabinet on the far side of the room, just in front of the woman.

The man and woman appear to be a couple, who have met in that room to engage in a clandestine sexual relationship. However, the bed is a single not a double, and shows no sign of having been used, nor has the bedding been disturbed in any way. There is a mature fire burning in the fireplace behind the woman and the lamp.

Pictorially, this work centres on a triangle formed by those lighter objects: the table lamp, the woman, and her suitcase.

There are four paintings or similar objects hanging on the walls, of which only one appears to be decipherable. This is the large rounded rectangular one above the fireplace.

Although it appears to be a mirror, the image shown on it doesn’t resemble a reflection of the room’s interior, but looks to be a painting. This might show a bright figure, resembling the woman, in front of some shrubs, behind which are classical buildings. This doesn’t resemble any of Degas’ paintings, nor any well-known work.

Considered alongside other paintings of the late nineteenth century, Interior is most likely to be a problem picture, intended to stimulate speculation as to its narrative, but not to resolve it. These started to appear in Britain from 1850, and enjoyed their heyday towards the turn of the century.

This was also the time of the first modern detective fiction: Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin tales became very popular when they were published from 1841 onwards, and in 1868 Émile Gaboriau’s serialised detective story Monsieur Lecoq shot to fame throughout France. There is every indication that Degas’ Interior is a problem picture inspired by Gaboriau’s detective fiction.

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Sulking (c 1869), oil on canvas, 32.4 x 46.4 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. The Athenaeum.

Degas’ Sulking (c 1869) is a far simpler image than Interior, but is no less enigmatic. The work is set in an office, in which a man is sat at a desk, and a young woman stands leaning over the back of a chair, looking directly at the viewer.

The desk in front of the man is strewn with piles of papers, which he is studying intently, his arms folded with elbows resting on the desk. Within the papers is a full cup of coffee. Although his face is largely obscured, he appears sullen and sulking.

The wall behind the figures is wood-panelled, and there is a large painting of an unidentified steeplechase horse race in full view. The woman is well-dressed, as is the man, and her wrists are crossed on the back of the chair on which she is leaning. In her right hand is a light object, which may be a rolled up paper tied with a fine ribbon. Her facial expression is neutral, with the hint of a slight smile, perhaps.

One reading could be that the man is sulking over excessive bills and expenditure; it is feasible that the woman is his wife, and that her dressmaking and millinery accounts are part of the cause of his unhappiness. At this stage in Degas’ life, his father was still alive and the family bank was still apparently prospering, allowing the artist to be free of financial worries.

With its financial theme, this work links with the paintings below.

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873), oil on canvas, 74 × 92 cm, Musée des beaux-arts de Pau, Pau, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Degas painted A Cotton Office in New Orleans in 1873, when he visited his mother’s family in New Orleans. An overtly genre work, it features several family portraits, and has a narrative background, showing a cotton buyer visiting the Musson cotton merchants. Degas is believed to have hoped to sell this work to the Cottrills, a family of British cotton manufacturers, and it was exhibited at the Second Impressionist Exhibition in 1876.

The elderly gentleman wearing a top hat, in the foreground, is Michel Musson, Degas’ uncle, and a partner in the business. Edgar Degas’ brothers Achille and René are slightly further back on the left (leaning idly against the open window), and sat reading a newspaper, respectively. Standing at the desk on the right is John Lavaudais, the cashier.

The figures echo and repeat one another across and into the depths of the room, in dress, posture, and appearance.

While almost everyone else in the painting is lounging around, business is being transacted between the buyer and broker on either side of the table covered with the cotton, the broker being at the centre of the canvas. This small pool of commerce within an image dominated by idleness and dolce far niente reflects the situation of Degas and his family at that time.

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Portraits at the Stock Exchange (1878-79), oil on canvas, 100 x 82 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Portraits at the Stock Exchange (1878-79) is a third painting in Degas’ series showing modern business, and was painted after his father’s death, when the artist was almost bankrupt. A portrait of the artist’s banker patron, Ernest May, the inactivity of the previous two works is here replaced by furtive and covert activity.

May stands side-on to the viewer, wearing his top hat and frock coat, as he reads a piece of paper being held in front of him by a colleague. Another man, his hand resting on the tip of May’s right shoulder, is whispering into May’s ear. Other figures around the foot of a large pillar are engaged in similarly secretive activities.

Degas’ view is again cropped unusually, the right edge of the canvas running straight down through the middle of another figure.

Several of Degas’ more complex paintings of the ballet contain narrative elements, but the one notably narrative painting from his later work is a simpler composition and another enigma: Waiting, a pastel painting from about 1882.

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Waiting (c 1882), pastel on paper, 48.3 x 61 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

This shows two women sat side-by-side on a wooden bench in a corridor or similar area within the ballet of the Paris Opera. The woman on the left is a ballet dancer, who is in full dancing dress. She leans forward and down, grasping her left ankle with her left hand, although she is not looking at that ankle but ahead at the flagstones on the floor.

Sat immediately to the right of the dancer is a woman wearing black street clothing, holding an unrolled black umbrella, and with black walking or working shoes. She wears a black hat and a full length black coat, her wrists are crossed on her lap, and she looks slightly down from directly ahead.

The dancer’s face is completely obscured; the other woman’s eyes are obscured by the brim of her hat. The two women occupy only the left half of the wooden bench, leaving the other half free.

Degas provides no other clues as to what the two women are waiting for, nor whether there is any relationship between them. Once again he leaves this as a problem painting, inviting the viewer to speculate and to construct their own narrative as they wish.

Degas’ narrative paintings show two distinct phases: up to 1865, he made quite explicit history paintings of relatively unusual stories in a quite conventional manner, although several of his compositions were complex, and he cropped the images in a very modern style.

After 1865, he continued to paint narrative works, but they did not tell familiar stories. Instead they were implicit and open-ended, inviting the viewer to speculate and build their own narrative from the visual clues and cues which he provided. These are consistent with the sub-genre of problem paintings, which were becoming increasingly popular, and related to serialised detective stories, for example.



Carol Armstrong (1991, 2003) Odd Man Out, Readings on the Work and Reputation of Edgar Degas, Getty. ISBN 978 0 8923 6728 3.
Christopher Lloyd (2014) Edgar Degas, Drawings and Pastels, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0 5000 9381 8.