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Perspective | A great painter’s novel attempt to compete with literature

Like many artists, Edgar Degas (1834-1917) had a competitive relationship with literature. He liked to think that a painting — of a certain face, in a certain setting — could tell us more about a person’s interior life than all the strenuous verbal psychologizing of a 19th-century novel.

On Christmas Day 1867, Degas made the first sketch toward “Interior” — a painting in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art that looks like a scene from an Ingmar Bergman movie or a painting by Edward Hopper. Dated 1868-1869, it is the masterpiece of Degas’s early period and the culmination of his youthful obsession with painting fraught relations between the sexes — marriages in particular.

The work, now in Paris for the show “Manet/Degas,” which travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art later this year, depicts a bedroom lit by a lamp. A woman is seated in a posture of shame or distress. She is dressed in a white chemise that falls off one shoulder. Her cloak and scarf have been tossed across the foot of the bed on the other side of the room. Her corset has been strewn on the floor.

Across the room stands a man — tall, bearded, fully dressed. Radiating suppressed anger, he leans against the door with his hands in his pockets. Disturbingly, he seems to be blocking the woman’s way out. The shadow he casts rises menacingly behind him. Near the center of the painting is an open sewing box with a vivid red lining that catches the lamplight. The red glow makes the box the most eye-catching object in the painting. Open and exposed, it hints at violated secrets, or worse.

For many years, “Interior” was referred to as “The Rape.” Several writers who knew Degas personally said this was the title he intended. Other friends, however, said he was “incensed” by the widespread adoption of that title and denied that a rape was its subject.

Much more likely is that “Interior” was inspired by a specific scene in “Thérèse Raquin,” Émile Zola’s third novel, and the one that launched his celebrity. When “Thérèse Raquin” came out in serial form in 1867, critics noted (with palpable distaste) its unusually vivid visual details. (The novel has been adapted for TV and film many times.) “There are in ‘Thérèse Raquin,’” wrote one critic, “paintings that would be worth extracting as samples of the most energetic and the most repulsive that Realism can produce.”

“Interior,” as I wrote in my 2016 book, “The Art of Rivalry,” can be read as Degas’s response to this challenge: He wanted to paint a picture that would be as charged as a scene in a realist novel. (Later, having outgrown such youthful ambitions, he half-dismissed it as “my genre picture.”)

The climactic 21st chapter of “Thérèse Raquin” describes the wedding night of Thérèse and her lover, Laurent. Having plotted to kill Thérèse’s first, sickly husband, the lovers finally succeeded in drowning him. But they waited over a year to get married and during that time, tormented by guilt, grew apart. Their wedding night, as a result, was not a typical wedding night. The relevant chapter begins:

“Laurent carefully shut the door behind him, then stood leaning against it for a moment looking into the room, ill at ease and embarrassed. … Thérèse was sitting on a low chair to the right of the fireplace, her chin cupped in her hand, staring at the flames. She did not look round when Laurent came in. Her lacy petticoat and bodice showed up dead white in the light of the blazing fire. The bodice was slipping down and part of her shoulder emerged pink … ”

Degas seems to have been fascinated by the fact that the intimacy between Laurent and Thérèse was destroyed by a shared secret that had become too heavy to carry. Having successfully attained the status of husband and wife, they were “doomed to live together yet without intimacy.”

Degas once compared painting a picture to committing a crime. “Interior” was his great attempt at depicting the psychological proceeds of crime, in the coin of anguish and moral rot.

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