I don’t know how you feel about impressionism but Edgar Degas was one of its leading lights and he didn’t care for the term very much. This is one he painted in 1869 called The Interior. You may know it by a very different title but hold on, I’m coming to that. This is a really atmospheric painting so take a minute to get sucked in. The use of light and shadow, their respective postures and difficult facial expressions all add to its intrigue.
Degas called this his genre painting. If you aren’t familiar with that term, a genre painting is a scene of ordinary people in everyday life. We usually don’t snoop for hidden meaning in these types of paintings because their appeal comes from the simplicity of daily life itself. Seeing the painting in that light and with that title, it’s hard to know what everyday scene Degas was capturing. Other genre paintings give you freedom of interpretation but it’s at least clear what’s going on. That is not the case here. And since Degas never explained it, we’re left with a mystery as to what this scene is about.
Enter stage left that second title I mentioned. Somewhere between its first public display in 1905 and today, this painting came to be popularly known by the darker and more dramatic title ‘The Rape.’ Look at the painting again with that on your brain and suddenly the scene gets very tense. His posture becomes menacing and his expression sinister. She becomes vulnerable and victimized. So, obvious question, would we see it that way without such a title to prejudice how we look at it? Here’s a thought experiment: turn on one title in our brain, interpret the painting, turn it off and repeat the process with the other title to see how we filtered the scene differently. Impossible, I know. There has been quite a bit of debate over whether this really is a moment before or after sexual violence. In case you care to know, I’m in the skeptical camp. But it’s not a hill worth dying on so I just let the discussion go on by me.
What distinguishes this painting is that its interpretation is heavily influenced by an apocryphal title it picked up along the way. But even without that, the painting’s ambiguity lets you tell your own story, which I think was his intent all along. It isn’t even close to Degas’ most famous work but in that sense at least, it’s a masterstroke.