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Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917)

Despite a wealth of detail, the drama unfolding between the couple in this painting resists explanation. Scholars have suggested that the scene might illustrate parts of two novels by Émile Zola that describe unhappy, tense encounters between lovers. But neither story fully explains the picture’s poignant details: the discarded corset, open sewing box, map hanging on the wall, or man’s top hat resting on a dresser. It is possible that Edgar Degas lifted individual elements and a general theme of confrontation from contemporary literature to create a work that has been described as one of "sexual menace."

The intimate nature of the painting is further enhanced by Degas’s use of light. The artist reminded himself in a notebook from this period to "work a great deal on nocturnal effects, lamps, candles, etc. The fascinating thing is not always to show the source of light but rather its effect."

Object Details

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