Visual Riddles: Across continents

Eastman Johnson (1824–1906), Not at Home (c 1873), oil on laminated paperboard, 67.1 x 56.7 cm, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first article in this series, I looked at some of the first major narrative paintings to appear in the middle of the nineteenth century which depicted unresolved stories. Although most of those shown were painted in Britain, where at the end of the century they became highly fashionable and known as ‘problem pictures’, two were painted by the German artist Berthold Woltze (1829-1896).

In this article, I look at a selection of later paintings with unresolved narrative, including examples from France and North America, which demonstrate that this change in narrative painting wasn’t confined to Britain by any means.

The first two of these were painted in France by Edgar Degas, who made several narrative works during his early career, such as his Young Spartans Exercising from about 1860.

Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin tales became very popular across Europe when they were published from 1841 onwards, and in 1868 Émile Gaboriau’s serialised detective story Monsieur Lecoq shot to fame throughout France. That same year, Degas started work on his own detective story.

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.

A man and a woman are in a bedroom together. The woman is at the left, partly kneeling down, and facing away from the man. Her hair is cropped short, she wears a white shift which has dropped off her left shoulder, and her face is obscured in the dark. Her left forearm rests on a small stool or chair, over which is draped a dark brown cloak or coat. Her right hand rests against a wooden cabinet which is in front of her. She appears to be staring down towards the floor, off the left of the canvas.

The man stands at the far right, leaning against the inside of the bedroom door, and staring at the woman. He is quite well-dressed, with a black jacket, black waistcoat and mid-brown trousers. Both his hands are thrust into his trouser pockets, and his feet are apart. His top hat rests, upside down, on top of the cabinet on the other side of the room, just in front of the woman.

Between them, 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 pair of scissors and other items which appear to be from a clothes repair kit (‘housewife’).

The single bed is made up, and its cover is not ruffled, but it may possibly bear a bloodstain at the foot. At the foot of the bed, on its large arched frame, another item apparently of the woman’s clothing (perhaps a coat) hangs loosely. On that end of the bed is a woman’s dark hat with ribbons, and her corset has been dropped on the floor by the foot of 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.

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 says otherwise.

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.

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 that appears to be a mirror, the image shown in 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.

Degas provides a lot of small details, just as in a detective story, none of which points clearly to a resolution. You can discuss and debate its narrative endlessly – as has been done for the last 150 years.

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’ second painting, Sulking from about 1869, is a far simpler image, but no less enigmatic. This time his story 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. Once again, though, Degas leads us into a story and leaves us looking at clues which don’t resolve except in our own imaginations.

Philip Hermogenes Calderon (1833–1898), Letter from Daddy (1873), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile in Britain, Philip Hermogenes Calderon continued his series of unresolved narratives with Letter from Daddy in 1873. Here he gives us fewer clues, and a theme which he previously considered in his “Lord, Thy Will Be Done” (1855), which I showed in the previous article.

A young mother, who appears to have just been breast-feeding, leans low over her baby, both of them resting on a bed. She wears a full and long gown. Clutched in her left hand are the pages of a letter, which the title tells us has come from the baby’s father. Behind, on a shelf, is a model of a square-rigged ship, implying that the absent father is a sailor (probably an officer) on board. Although centred at a very different social level from “Lord, Thy Will Be Done”, the message appears similar.

Eastman Johnson (1824–1906), Not at Home (c 1873), oil on laminated paperboard, 67.1 x 56.7 cm, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

At about the same time in New York, the American genre artist Eastman Johnson painted another narrative work which only makes any sense when you know its title of Not at Home (c 1873), which apparently shows the interior of the artist’s home. Without those three words of the title, all you see is a well-lit and empty parlour, and the presumed mistress of the house starting up the stairs, in relative gloom in the foreground. At the right is a child’s push-chair, parked up and empty.

Those three words, of course, are the classic excuse offered in someone’s absence – “I am sorry, but the Mistress is not at home” – even when they are very much at home, but simply don’t want to see the visitor(s). So the title could imply that the woman is ascending the stairs in order not to see visitor(s). Or, if we know that this is the artist’s home, could it be that it’s Johnson himself who is not at home?

Until now, paintings with unresolved narratives had been relatively unusual. Careful searching for examples has returned just nine in a little more than twenty years. That was to change in 1874, when they became more frequent, as I’ll show in the next article in this series.