The Ambiguous Scene
The Situation and Recurrance of Degas's Sulking
Jesse Richards - November 28, 1997

Edgar Degas has always been a controversial figure in the history of art, and his works have become known for a certain intentional ambiguity. The strong moods evoked in his paintings, along with their intriguing subject matter that often deals both directly and subtly with issues of class and gender, make Degas an easy subject for postmodern analysis. It is my goal in dealing with Degas to examine a particularly enigmatic work and attempt to locate some of the issues it raises and help place the painting in the larger context of some of the artist's similar works and a strikingly correlative painting done by the artist almost thirty years later. I will also show some ways that Degas managed to make the work intentionally questionable, and how these inherent ambiguities are the greatest contributor to its intrigue and success as a painting.

While Degas is famous for depicting female subjects in a wide array of settings, including the ballet, the bath, and the brothel, and indeed for depicting women in general, Sulking is unique in the relationship it sets up between the female and the male figure in the painting. Sulking, which has also been called The Banker, and has been dated as late as 1873 but is generally regarded to have been painted in 1869-1871, is strikingly mysterious in the scene, characters, and issues it sets up, to the point of being intentionally ambiguous. It seems that Degas set up the picture so as to purposely pose questions, often unanswerable, about the situation to the viewer. The work shows two figures, a man sitting at a desk and a woman leaning on the desk to the left. The title refers to the man, who is quite agitated, and hunched over the desk. Both figures seem to have been interrupted, and are waiting for the viewer to leave so as to resume their conversation. The painting is quite detailed in its depiction of the office scene, and X-rays of the canvas reveal that Degas reworked the organization of the papers on the desk quite a bit. What is also interesting is that none of Degas's comments on the work, identification of the scene or characters, or sketches survive except for three sketches of details of the office, including one of the desk. Why would Degas, well-known for being one of a few artists most associated with forethought, planning, and multiple reworkings of similar subjects, set up a unique, complicated and apparently arbitrary situation, and create an intricate scene and characters that would appear to have nothing to do with the rest of his body of work?

The answer, of course, is that he didn't - not really. While certainly standing out as mysterious and unique, Sulking also has strong ties to much of Degas's work. One obvious connection can be found in the painting which appears behind the couple in Sulking. The work is an English engraving by J. F. Herring, titled Steeplechase Cracks (1847). It depicts a racing scene which is very reminiscent of several of Degas's famous works. In fact, Degas, who "knew well and appreciated [English painting], having studied the British section of the 1867 Exposition Universelle at length" (Boggs 147), borrowed part of the composition in another of his works. In The False Start, dating from 1866-68, the main jockey and horse in the center of the painting are an exact replica of the horse from the lower right of Steeplechase Cracks, only reversed. Perhaps since The False Start was painted not long before Sulking, Degas was trying to give some credit back to Herring, in a sort of painting-within-a-painting in-joke. At any rate, Degas is famous for his passion for depicting horses and racing scenes, and it seems he appreciated and knew well many works in that genre, even English painting. The work may just be in Sulking simply because Degas liked it.

While the subject matter of the painting does have points in common with others of Degas's works, by comparing some examples, we can also see why Sulking is unique. Take, for example, his famous Interior (The Rape), from 1868-69, done around the same time as Sulking. Both works set up a sort of story, and both have two characters - a woman on the left and a man on the right. Both take place in room that shows great detail in the setting and has paintings in the background. Both set up a situation that is unpleasant in its uncertainty. But even though these basic points are the same, the two paintings couldn't be more different. While both are ambiguous, Interior is much more threatening (The room is darkened, the man appears shadowy and foreboding, and the work is also known as The Rape.) Still, I believe Sulking is the more interesting painting, mainly because of a big difference: the two characters are actively engaging the viewer. This confrontation gives the painting an eeriness that is not present in Interior, and raises many more questions. For while one may be curious to know what is happening in Interior, and perhaps fearful for the woman in the painting, the viewer is not actively involved, and thus is not compelled to discover his/her relationship to the characters. The viewer can reassure him or herself that it is a fictional situation - not as likely in Sulking.

Another good contrast to Sulking can be found in Degas's famous Portraits in an Office. While both can be said to depict business scenes, this work has very little to do with Sulking; it depicts about a dozen men going about their daily routine at work - some are hard at work while others seem to be on break, standing around or reading a newspaper. There is no sense of the tension found in Sulking, and the work resembles a photograph, a moment of time caught without any reference to the participants being aware of their viewer. The painting shows Degas's skill at both recording casual, everyday events and accurately depicting a business setting. While Sulking also accurately depicts a business setting, its contrast to Portraits in an Office through the use of the characters engaging the viewer and the mood it sets up prove that Degas was trying to achieve something other than simply showing a business scene. While there are lots of business details in Sulking, such as the papers on the desk, the shelves, and the furniture, it is apparent that this was not what Degas was concentrating on. If he had been, he could have done it a lot better, as Portraits in an Office shows. This illustrates again how the ambiguity in the painting is intentional, because many of Degas's works that wouldn't work well with that sense of mystery simply do not have it.

One of the most intriguing things about Sulking and the most obvious of its ties to another of Degas's works can be found in the painting Conversation. This work, done twenty-five years later, in 1895, is a clear recurrence of Sulking. The artist has gone back to an earlier work and painted it again with a very different touch and goal. Indeed, while the composition is nearly identical, the work almost seems to have been done by two different artists - the later work has eliminated all superfluous detail and seems to have been reduced to its core elements. The facial expressions of the two characters have changed as well; they still address the viewer but not as obviously as before. The mood has shifted from tension to a serene sadness.
Sulking - Degas

Conversation is interesting in that it seems to come out of nowhere. It is not that Degas painted a series of works with this subject - no, he painted one which seems fairly successful and then decided to do it again thirty years later. This raises the question of why - was Degas dissatisfied with the earlier work and wanted to redo it? This seems unlikely, since it probably would not have taken him that many years to paint it again; he would have tried it around the same time, using the same models and setting while he had them. And, the X-ray of the painting shows reworking mainly in the area of the desk, a small detail not essential to the mood or overall composition. There was no attempt to move the people closer to each other, which is the largest layout change in Conversation. Thus it seems more likely that Degas was simply still intrigued by Sulking and decided to play around with it a bit. Perhaps it held his attention as surely as it does ours today.

These similarities firmly root Sulking to some of Degas's other work, but the painting is still quite unique in many ways, starting even in its title. The title, Sulking, is proof in itself that Degas was attempting to make the work ambiguous. While, at first glance, it seems clear that the title refers to the man, who wears a frowning, indignant expression, it could refer to the woman. While the woman is not as upset, she is certainly not happy, and is probably devoting most of her unhappy attitude toward the interruption rather than the man next to her. However, the entire scene itself has a mood of sulking; this would give the title a double reference to the man and the situation, and contribute to Degas's intended obscurity of the meaning of the work. Sulking is also a word that has many emotional connotations to it; the word itself conjures up a mood as surely as the painting does.

The prevailing reason why the painting is so confusing and thus interesting lies directly in the two figures, their expressions, and their relationships between each other and the viewer. It would seem that either a terse argument, or the opposite, a perhaps rare tender moment between the two, was interrupted. This would lead to the man's indignation due to embarrassment, but the woman would not be as upset. But while the man is sulking and obviously mad at the interruption, the woman holds our gaze and questions it. She creates a feeling of guilt for the interruption and is perhaps the most compelling part of the painting. The centrality of her face in the composition alerts us to her first, then we look over and notice the intense glare of the man. All in all, not a friendly greeting - and Degas intentionally arranges the work so as to further amplify the strange mood caused by the interruption.

Two hypotheses have been put forth as to the relationship between the man and the woman in Sulking: they are either a father and his daughter, or a married couple. This is mainly because of the way the painting is set up, but it is also interesting since these correspond to the majority of male/female relationships in Degas's time - close platonic friendships between the sexes were not as visible as they are allowed to be today, thus it is unlikely that the couple in Sulking are close friends. There are several reasons as to why the two people might be considered married as opposed to being single; if they were courting, it is hard to believe that the man would be quite so indignant and upset in front of the woman he is interested in, instead of putting forth the facade of a flirting, good-natured attitude. On the other hand, the main reason for suggesting that the woman is his daughter is because of her obvious youth as compared to his much further advanced age. Although that age difference was not uncommon between couples, especially in Degas's time, and it is also difficult to see just how old the man is because of his scowling expression and the shadow on his face, it could be presumed that if they were married Degas would have given more clues, such as rings perhaps, or any sign of affection between the two (The woman's young age suggests that if they are married, they could not have been so for very long.) The fact that he gives no such clues is again indicative of the ambiguity that Degas purposely based the work around. So, because Degas purposely made the relationship difficult to decipher, we can assume that the only thing intended was the ambiguity itself; the mystery behind their relationship is essential to the composition of the scene. Still, it seems more likely that they are a married couple simply because the situation set up implies that relationship more than a familial one. This is mainly because of the lack of other family members - the presence of only two people in itself implies a dating/married relationship. Also, as a final detail, if the man is studying monetary transactions (and it seems certain that this is what his work is - either in a bank or tallying the daily receipts or bets from a racetrack), the woman might have been asking him about them - not her 'place' to do so if they are only courting or she is his daughter visiting. A married woman would be much more interested in the family's finances and success.

The attitude exuded by the woman is one of impatience, of waiting for the man to finish his work or to perhaps answer a question or resume their conversation. One could say that she is impatient at the viewer and his/her intrusion; while this is true, the tension between the two characters has already been established - one gets the impression that the viewer has merely stumbled onto it by accident, and, by doing so, has added to it. Although the woman is waiting, however, her face also conveys the message that she is used to waiting, and that this situation recurs often. This can be made especially clear by, again, comparing Sulking to the later Conversation. Although their faces are blurred, the same poses and moods run through the later work. The man, however, seems more exhausted than indignant and has allowed himself to move closer to the woman. They both seem burdened by the stresses of life, and the woman's pose has deteriorated - she is slouching and needs to support her head on her hand. She has taken off her jacket, placed it on the desk, and is leaning on it, suggesting that she has been waiting for quite some while. The couple has given up arguing for the mellower tones implied in a simple conversation, and there seems to be a stronger, but even sadder connection between the two figures. Indeed, the primary idea suggested by the work when compared to the themes in Sulking is that the woman has been waiting for the entire time span between the two paintings; both people have lived their lives and have grown old, and still the woman is waiting, and still the man is sulking. Their relationship has not improved in almost thirty years.

Another interesting question posed by Sulking refers to the identity, in terms of his profession, of the man in the painting. As in other issues brought up by the work, two responses have been put forth: that the man is either a banker, or in the horse racing business. The work has sometimes been known as The Banker, but it seems certain that this identification was a mistake and that Sulking was the title ascribed to it by the painter. As Jean Sutherland Boggs writes in a catalog of Degas's work from an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum:

In fact, it [the title Sulking] dates back to 27 December 1895, when Degas stored the painting with Durand-Ruel; thus it is quite probable that it was the artist's title. This small canvas has on occasion been identified as "Le Banquier," which was sold by Degas to Durand-Ruel and then bought by Faure with five other pictures on 5 March 1874. There is nothing in the Durand-Ruel records, however, to support that tempting hypothesis. (146)

So, while The Banker is not the official title of the work, it does not necessarily disprove that the man is a banker. It is interesting that while there are many clues to the man's profession in the background and setting of the room, none of them are definitive; none give a direct answer either way. The biggest push towards the identification of the man as one involved with horse racing is the obvious painting in the background; this could merely be decoration in the banker's office, but this seems more unlikely. Degas also painted many details of the office itself: shelves, which are also included in his sketches, and the great mess of papers on the desk that are probably receipts and bills. The portion of the wall on the left of the painting, behind the woman, appears to be a ticket window, as it is a small window with a shelf under it. Unfortunately, this could be found in either setting - at a racetrack or in a bank.

One interesting clue can be found in what looks to be a framed certificate behind the man, judiciously cropped so as to obscure its identity. But perhaps this gives us more information than it appears to upon first glance: what if the framed item is a newspaper clipping? While it is not that detailed, it is in black and white, and appears to have columns and a heading at the top. If this is true, it would certainly be more indicative of a horse racing location than that of a bank - the article would probably be showing a big win or famous race. This argument also serves to place the painting more securely within the interests of Degas; one of the painter's most famous and recurring subjects was the races and horses themselves. This painting could then be just an examination of another side of the races, a behind-the-scenes look at the business aspect and the betting and monetary associations with the races, which had recently become common. Also, while Degas did paint other business scenes (and Portraits in an Office is perhaps the most famous of these), none of them seem rife with the possible racing associations found in Sulking. And, the lack of any racing paintings in the backgrounds of these works (that I know of) can lead one to infer that racing paintings, while popular, were not extremely common in business settings that were not directly related to the races.

One major issue raised in Sulking is that of privacy and its invasion and interruption. This idea runs through much of Degas's work, most notably in his series of women bathing. Many of Degas's works place the identity of the artist as a recorder of everyday events; this creates a sort of voyeuristic capacity on the part of the painter and then the viewer (much as modern-day photography and video camera recording do). This is found in the bathing series - the women do not seem aware of the viewer, thus the effect created becomes one of watching an intimate scene. This can also be found in Sulking, but with a different twist - the two figures are distinctly aware of the viewer and are actively engaging him/her. Perhaps this is what contributes the most to its sense of mood and strange compulsion of the painting. It is certainly what makes the characters interesting. If the painting simply recorded their conversation without including the viewer, the only issue raised by the situation would become the question of what the two are speaking about. By having the two figures look directly at the viewer, Degas makes he/she an integral part of the composition and a major part of the 'storyline'. This draws the viewer in and makes one much more interested in and curious about the scene, thus adding to its ambiguity. Questions are immediately raised: Why am I there? Why did I interrupt? What did I interrupt? Why are they looking at me? What's going on? And perhaps most importantly, Should I leave? This makes the viewer uncomfortable and places positions of power on the two figures that are obviously not usually inherent in inanimate, painted people. The questions raised are, of course, unanswerable; if a detailed story even exists we may never be aware of it, and any guesses as to specifics of the situation become mostly conjecture.

The painting also raises many questions referring to gender issues; some specifics of these issues at work in the painting can be found in both the characters' expressions and their posture. Obviously the man is the owner of the space, and it is his office that the woman is visiting. The woman still has power in the painting, however, but it is clear she is waiting for the man and her mood is dependant on his. It is also interesting that the man is much more upset than the woman. The man is sulking, but in a much more angry manner than sad. One could put forth the idea that even though both figures might be equally mad at the intrusion, the man is allowed to show his anger (partially because he is male and partially because he is the owner of the space) while the woman can at most be slightly annoyed. The woman's pose is casual, and she seems more prepared for the interruption. This is congruent with the idea of looking at women in Degas's time - the woman is more at ease with a viewer because she is used to being watched. The man is busy, has stress from his work, and had no intention of being looked at in any way. It is his lack of control over the situation that has worsened his mood, and created the tension in the scene. He may have lost control of the organization of his paperwork, then the conversation with his visitor, and finally even the sanctity of his office has been invaded. This leads the man to give up control and ultimately, just sulk. This is interesting in that the power is then handed to the female - she seems responsible for asking the viewer to leave. Indeed, the woman seems much more aware of the viewer than the man. By this it seems more likely that the interrupter is male (like the majority of the painting's viewers at the time, not to mention Degas himself); if the viewer were female perhaps the man would try to compose himself more. The woman seems annoyed but at the same time intrigued by the viewer, while the man is too upset to care. An insight into some issues can be found in this quote from Anthea Callen:

"Thus, too, in the earlier genre-portrait painting Sulking (The Banker), the male figure - in spite of being compositionally marginalized - is unequivocally the owner of this official space. The female figure is identified not simply by her street costume and pose as a visitor: the very fact of being female makes her presence anomalous, the source of a transient, and obviously uncomfortable disruption within this austere, masculine environment."(175)

Some gender issues can even be found in the title - or rather, not in the official title but in the one ascribed to it later, that of The Banker. This title places more import on the man, by using his profession to describe the entire scene. It makes the job of the man and the office setting more important than the real issues at play - the relationship between the two figures. The Banker implies a portrait of only one person; why not title the painting The Visitor, and refer to the woman? The evidence that this indeed is not the true title is then supported by the likelihood that Degas himself was trying to place the focus not primarily on the individual gender roles of the figures or the profession of the man but on the relationship between the two people and the ambiguity of the scene itself. By titling the work Sulking, there is ambiguity on whether he is referring to the man, woman, or possibly both. And if he is only referring to the man, it is still an emotion that ties in closely to the female. Twenty-five years later, by the title Conversation, the mood and interaction between the characters have been emphasized even more; the word conversation itself requires at least two people contributing to the action.

In many ways, Degas seems to have improved his composition and the ideas he was trying to convey in Conversation. The largest improvement has been made by simply eliminating the details of the office setting, thus shifting the import to the characters even more obviously than in Sulking. Then the only real issue raised in Conversation becomes the mood and relationship between the man and the woman. The posture of the woman has changed: by leaning on her arm she seems tired and defeated. The man is not truly sulking anymore, but still will not leave the office. The woman's jacket draped over his desk serves to unite them even more firmly. In this painting it seems more clear that they are a married couple and that there is a sort of sympathy between them. Still, while it would seem that Conversation works better as a painting compositionally, and doesn't confuse the viewer by being as ambiguous or asking as many questions as Sulking does, there is still something lost. It would seem that Degas knew what he was doing when he purposely made Sulking mysterious. While we may never know the answers to the mysteries of Sulking, it would seem that these questions themselves are what make the painting one of Degas's most intriguing, engaging, and thus, one of his most successful works.


Armstrong, Carol. Odd Man Out: Readings of the Work and Reputation of Edgar Degas. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Bershad, Deborah. Looking, Power and Sexuality: Degas' Woman with a Lorgnette. New York: Universe, 1991.

Boggs, Jean Sutherland. Degas. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988.

Callen, Anthea. The Spectacular Body: Science, Method and Meaning in the Work of Degas. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Loyrette, Henri. Degas: The Man and His Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993.