Beneath the brush strokes and oil
Painting is not for the eyes alone: it presents us with choices we can make only by saying something. (Many modern works pressure us immediately to decide whether they are to be called ''painting'' at all.) Edgar Degas' portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Morbilli shows us how a picture's appearance may change according to the story we tell about what it depicts.Skip to next paragraph
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The standard interpretation of this work assumes that it is a study in character contrast. The Duchess, who happens to have been Degas' sister, Therese , is usually seen as reticent and anxious, almost cowering at her husband's elbow. While the Duke's hands hang relaxedly, hers are upraised, touching her cheek and leaning on his shoulder, as if to signal her fearfulness and dependence on his strength. The Duke's figure occupies much of the picture space and literally casts a shadow on his wife's face. His prominence in the portrait, his settled pose and undemonstrative expression, are taken to signify his dominance of the marriage.
Suppose we reconsider the picture keeping in mind Degas' interest in photography. What if his intentions were not to portray gestures and attitudes as generalizations about the character and relationship of the Duke and Duchess, but simply to represent a specific moment of their posing, as the camera would? Paul Valery, who knew him, wrote of Degas that ''he dared try to combine the snapshot with the endless labor of the studio.''
Thinking of the portrait as a picture in the photographic sense can change the meaning of the sitters' expressions. The Duchess' expression now appears to be that of someone who has just understood something inwardly, but has not yet spoken it, constrained perhaps by the circumstances. We forget too easily that this picture describes a moment in which the artist scrutinized his sister and her husband. If we think of the Duchess' gaze as directed at us, her expression seems to signify a generalization upon her nature. But if we remember that she was actually looking at her brother during the moment the painting depicts, then her face and gestures seem instead to manifest an intelligence more active than the Duke's appears to be. With one hand she touches her husband, with the other herself, and with her gaze she reaches her brother, the artist. Her look is that of someone ''putting two and two together.'' Perhaps her gesture to her husband's shoulder is protective, rather than needy. For we may be seeing the moment at which she realizes that her brother may be painting a very unsympathetic image of her husband. The Duke's mien then begins to look unguarded, rather than worldly. The contrast between his expression and hers now suggests that he may lack the imagination for Degas' gifts and for how he himself may appear to others. He looks like someone who is sure he knows what a portrait is and how he will appear to one.
The accuracy of Degas' realism is in his ability to reproduce in images the kinds of ambiguities that color our actual observations of life and people.