Looking Through the Keyhole with Degas
Edgar Degas’s Interior gives us a glimpse behind closed doors to the struggles of sex, class, and the strangers in our homes
Like the death throes of a supernova, France of 1868 was tearing itself apart. A disastrous war with Prussia lay on the horizon, Marxist ideals spurred the silent, exploited working-class to revolt, and the country could no longer conceal its weakness from the confederation of enemies the rest of Europe had become. Napoleon III’s authoritarianism and incompetence were bringing the Second Empire to a chaotic finish. In this spiraling society, Edgar Degas painted Interior — an enigmatic depiction of isolation, domestic dysfunction, and sexual and economic tension.
However, its inspiration was not the nadir of a society but its height. At the apex of its power, the Second Empire catapulted toward modernity and with it arose the incongruities of culture at once financially prosperous and morally bankrupt. Yet, Interior is more than a reaction. It is a reflection of an age when art and philosophy were grasping toward the radical idea of autonomy and the alienation that arises when only the select few are granted it. By way of a work that straddles Realism and Impressionism, Degas probed through the keyhole to bourgeoisie society and rendered, in soft brushwork, uncomfortable truth about sex, social class, and the strangers in our homes.
Owing to its mysterious, sexually-charged nature, Degas’s Interior has been the target of intense critical speculation. Measuring 32 x 45 inches, it is small enough to compel the eye closer for a vain search of clues to unlock this puzzling tableau, a feeling that something has been overlooked in the shadows. It was not until thirty years after its completion — when it was offered for sale — that it was exposed to the public, having been stowed and rarely seen in Degas’s studio. At this time, the work garnered the apocryphal title “The Rape” spurred by critic George Grappe’s interpretation of the scene as the aftermath of a bourgeoisie male’s attack on a virginal seamstress. Degas rejected this title, but offered little in the way of clarification, referring to the work only as his “little genre painting.”
On the surface, one sees a dimly-lit nocturnal scene set in a bourgeoisie, or petite-bourgeoisie, bedroom. A man sulks and stares vacantly while firmly blocking the only exit. A woman is seated, half-turned from the viewer, fully turned from her companion. Her clothing is in disarray, both on her body and in scattered placement on the floor and bed. Her face and, therefore, her emotions are not clearly defined. Yet, her curved posture gives a sense of sadness and defeat. Beyond this, Interior refuses to yield easy answers and instead prompts questions.
Is this an illustration of unsettled domesticity lifted directly from a literary work, as suggested by early critics? While it bears similarities to Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, the Goncourt brothers’ Manette Salomon, and several other dissonant urban novels of the time, Interior subtly suggests something more ambiguous, insidious and less melodramatic. It is a family portrait created by an artist who felt no compulsion to conceal the estrangement contemporary Parisians experienced, even in their homes.
Though Napoleon III was ultimately an ineffectual leader, it was through his urban development initiatives that Paris had never been more elegant or efficient. The city’s warren-like tangle of alleyways and tenements were demolished in favor of boulevards dotted with monuments, lined with cafés and teeming with galleries. The Industrial Revolution drew thousands from rural France with the hope of a life better than what was meted at birth. Urban life offered not only the potential of bourgeois fortune and the excitement of strangers, but also the exploitation of the unskilled, and the anxiety and alienation of the unfamiliar. This discordant composition set the scene for a sea change in art and thought.
From the 17th to the early 20th century, artistic production in France was controlled by a system of academies that strictly delineated what subjects and styles were worthy and unworthy.
The first to challenge this authority was the Realists lead by Gustave Courbet. The Realists pursued truth rather than the ideal. They selected subject matter from the everyday but radicalized it by elevating commonness, through the use of grand scale, to a status previously reserved for only the noblest historical themes. Following in their stead were the Impressionists, who did not wish to merely record truth, but rather express subjective truth as influenced by Positivist philosophy.
Positivism advocates that our sensory experiences, combined with reason and logic, are the sole source of certain knowledge. For the Académie, truth was rendered from objectivity, objectivity was derived from authority, and authority was something bestowed from noble consensus and divine origins. Authority dictated what was or was not of social significance. Impressionists displayed defiant autonomy, not only in their choice of subject matter but in how subject matter was expressed through the artist’s personal visual experience. While Degas is often categorized with the Impressionist movement, his early work — including Interior — comfortably walks the line between Realism and Impressionism.
Degas’s Realist roots are evident in comparison to the work of Jean Francois Millet. Millet depicted rural life as meager, but noble and superior to that of the cynical urban environment. In The Angelus, his peasant couple is bathed in golden light, surrounded by the majestic expanse of nature; they are one with each other and in communion with their Creator. They are rooted to the soil, but not bound by it. Wholeness and kinship made possible through faith, sincerity, and honest labor. Degas makes the same point by showing the inverse. Our protagonists sulk in the shadows of dying light in a dingy, claustrophobic space. The few glittering bric-a-bracs serve only to highlight the room’s sparseness rather than fill it. What they have acquired in urban convenience and leisure does not justify what they have lost in themselves and in each other.
One can also see how Degas was reaching for something beyond Realism, in form and content, through comparison to the work of Gustave Courbet. Unlike Courbet’s The Stone Breakers, which also features two people suffering the unpleasant realities of contemporary French life, one does not know what preceded Interior’s fleeting glimpse, nor does one know what is to follow. Rather, Courbet imbues certainty that father and son are locked in a cradle-to-grave cycle of rural poverty and brutal labor through precise brushwork capturing their tattered clothes and filthy hands. By contrast, Degas’s man and woman possess a ghostly quality — their features seem to slip in and out of the shadows. Though they are paralyzed by the tension between them, one senses, through the lack of moralizing narrative, the precariousness imbued by the endless choices of urban existence.
While one may never be able to identify the precise relationship between the man and woman, by examining Degas’s numerous studies for the work, one can deduce he intended for both to be of the bourgeoisie. This is obvious for the man in the final work, dressed in a well-tailored suit, with his top hat placed at a remove. It is less so for the woman who is clad only in a chemise and what could be her crumpled dress. One also sees a nondescript cloak and bonnet, but it is the discarded corset that tells the tale.
While most women of all classes wore some type of corset during this era, sex workers and working-class women were limited to wearing front-fastening designs as they were both inexpensive and could be put on without assistance. Women of the bourgeoisie, who had the extra-hands of a servant at their disposal, wore the back-laced design Degas depicts here. Such details are necessary to establish the social status of the protagonists, as this was a subject of importance to an avid flâneur like Degas.
Flâneurs were intellectual dandies who made a science out of people watching. Aided by physiologies — pamphlets which described how to discern social status or occupation based on factors such as physical characteristics, dress, and demeanor — flâneurs immersed themselves in Paris’s community of strangers. Like other Impressionist works, Interior puts the viewer in the position of a flâneur — an idea reinforced by the title. Yes, it is the interior of the room, but it is also the interior of private lives. One is intimately observing the domestic discord often found in the bourgeoisie home in the mid-19th century as both sexes began to question their place in a modern society fraught with shifting mores.
In addition to the aforementioned costumes, Degas offers subtle details providing further insight as to who one is viewing. For example, the prominent sowing kit containing an embroidery hoop and lace collar suggests the virtuous hobby of a gentlewoman rather than the trade of a seamstress. By contrast, the man’s pointed ears have a satyr-like quality symbolizing insatiable lust. The room, which is furnished too sparsely to be considered haute-bourgeoisie, is comfortably middle class. It contains both feminine details — the floral wallpaper — and symbols of masculine worldliness — the map upon the wall — suggesting a long-shared space. Conversely, the single bed cluttered with outwear is more indicative of hasty assignation in a hotel than settled domesticity.
Degas may not have wanted viewers to know whether what they are seeing is the result of a single unspeakable transgression or what remains after years of estrangement, but he was adamant they see it as perpetrated by individuals not unlike themselves.
Truth But Not Answers
During his lifetime, Degas was bestowed many labels by friends, critics, and contemporaries. The celibate. The curmudgeon. Vincent van Gogh referred to him as the “humble notary” for what he perceived as a dispassionate style. Others accused him of being a misogynist — a description that stuck among art critics until only recently — primarily because he didn’t idealize the female form to please the male gaze. However, Degas never felt the urge to address them or explain himself or add context. Because, while these labels might tell part of his story, he was comfortable being as enigmatic as his Interior, and that is perhaps part of the larger truth in this work.
Stranger or loved one, there is something unknowable inside each one of us. As such, the protagonists of the Interior cannot navigate the divide between them any more than Parisians of the Second Empire could comfortably do so with strangers on the teeming streets or with a lover behind closed doors. Degas’s subtle articulation of this uncomfortable truth continues to resonate softly but is no less disquieting.
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