“Painting is silent Poetry and Poetry a painting that speaks.” This quote is most often attributed to Simonides* (Greek poet – 556 BC – 468 BC) and came to mind when I was moved to write in reaction to seeing Degas’ “L’Interieur”. (Please double-click inside the image to enlarge to almost-screen size.)
When I first saw it, almost twenty years ago, it hung in one of the first rooms on the right in the Johnson Galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was immediately struck by the moodiness and the ambiguity of the scene portrayed. What had happened? Or had it not happened yet? Was this prelude or aftermath? The contrasts between the two figures were stark: in attire and attitude, power and powerlessness.
I wanted to know more, including why the painting had official and unofficial names. However, I curbed my curiosity until AFTER completing the poem because I didn’t want to be influenced by anything read. Below is my “take” on what is being portrayed. One footnote: to be sure my usage of “penumbral” was scientifically accurate, I called the Astronomy Dept. at U. of Penn and described to one of the professors how the lamp-light lit the two personages. I remember him being amused, as it wasn’t the kind of question to which he was accustomed. (He assured me I was using the term correctly.)
Le Intérieur – (or Le Viol, 1869) Edgar Degas
Whether he is dressed again
or never shed more than cape,
Whether two bodies one imprint pressed,
In passion or by duress,
and finished, the bed remade;
Whether his eyes with sated lust
fix far into a sharded past,
released from promises and regrets,
while hers, in shame, rue the words
that claimed a maidenhead too fast…
By one mute lamp’s carousel of light,
their faces in penumbral relief,
her cowered shape, resigned,
his spectral form, transfixed:
two frailties forever ambered
in a moment outside Time.
To learn more, I contacted the appropriate department at the PMA and a monograph on the painting was provided to me by museum staff. As best can be researched, the scene fits a climactic point in a story by Emile Zola depicting the moment of truth between lovers reuniting a year after killing the woman’s husband. In Zola’s tale, in order to allay suspicions, they had agreed to have no contact for that period of time following the murder. We are witnesses to a moment that will determine their future relationship and invited to wonder at their “interior” – and our own – and to imagine how their deepest hopes and darkest fears would mirror ours. Or not.
One detail, not possible to see in reproductions – the painting is quite large – is the man’s only visible (left) eye, a sliver of brightness surrounded by his very dimly-lit face. As eyes are “windows into the soul”, I still marvel at how Degas could convey so much with a couple of abbreviated curlecued dabs of pigment less than an inch long.
* Simonides is best known for the epitaph at Thermopylae to the 300 Spartans who held off Xerxes’s Persian army for several days: “Go tell the Spartans, passerby, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”