Painting of the Day

18 Nov



A Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers. by Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Oil on canvas, 1865. Currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Notes from 

The novelty of this composition has prompted many writers to suggest that the seated woman was an afterthought. Although there remains some doubt, she is probably the wife of Degas’s school friend Paul Valpinçon. Degas immensely enjoyed his visits to their country house, Ménil-Hubert, and the presence of dahlias, asters, and gaillardias in the bouquet makes it likely that this work was painted there in August or September 1865. It was preceded by an exquisite pencil drawing of the sitter, also dated 1865. Far from representing an afterthought, her presence in the composition was deliberate and intentionally provocative. As Degas himself once said, “I assure you that no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament.”

The painting is signed and dated 1865 twice. Infrared photographs made in 1987 show that the partly obscured date is 1865, not 1858 as was previously assumed. X-rays taken in 1987 reveal that the bouquet originally extended farther to the right, but that Degas scraped that part out and painted the figure of the woman over it.

My comments: 

For some reason, I’ve always known this painting as “Woman with Chrysanthemums,” although I’m not sure why. It’s probably for the same reason that people generally call James McNeill Whistler’s painting Arrangement in Grey and Black  “Whistler’s Mother” instead. 

I’ve always felt sentimental and emotionally connected to this painting because the woman featured in it strikes an uncanny resemblance to that of my grandmother, both in her facial features and expression. I have a photograph of my grandmother on a bus in which she is looking out the window with exactly the same expression the woman in Degas’s painting has. 

This is such a fascinating, unconventional painting, and for that I think it is one of Degas’s very best works. To put a large vase of delicately, beautifully depicted flowers at center stage and use them in a way that almost pushes a human figure to the side is such an interesting stylistic choice. Degas’s reasons for this choice is but one of the many mysteries in the painting. What is the woman looking at? Is she waiting for something or someone, or just pausing to contemplate? Is she just staring into space? Where is she? A public space or a private one?

In real life, if this woman was in a public space, such as a hotel lobby, she would most likely never catch the attention of many passerby. But here Degas takes what is a common and mundane moment in life’s daily grind and magnifies it, capturing it in a way that makes interesting–an excellent example of when the formal qualities of a painting become more striking than any represented subject matter.

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