This painting by Edgar Degas has fascinated and frustrated me since art school.
The American Academy of Art was just two blocks from the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago, and I frequently dashed there during lunch break to spend an hour muttering to myself in front of their fine collection of Degas paintings.
The composition of this piece in particular thwarted my youthful efforts to analyze it. A quiet scene in a ladies hat shop. Yet there is something disquieting about it. I'm going to have another whack at figuring this one out.
The arrangement of shapes are still and formal, yet dramatic. Some unexpected, awkward angles. An odd, unbalanced symmetry. Rough slashes of dark and light. Such a challenging puzzle. Is Degas provoking us?
Since I’ve made the claim before that illustration is manipulation, that we as artists can determine the emotional experience of the viewer, I feel it is important to study what factors determine these impressions.
If we squint deeply, the most apparent thing is the hat with green ribbon leading down to the brightest colored hat, the blue one. This neatly cuts the composition in half. A light, brightly lit hat at the far left is balanced by a similarly colored one the woman is holding off to the right, cementing a nearly perfect symmetry. A dull start, as this usually is a compositional no-no.
But there’s more. A noticeable aspect in Degas’ painting is the raking angle of the table. The woman’s arm is also abruptly angled. She is leaning awkwardly. There is an instability to the whole foreground, as if it is falling off the canvas.
We see an ominous dark band along the upper portion of the painting, acting as a weight, reminiscent of blue-black storm clouds. There is something disturbing about the room. The dark and light bands of the rear windows are almost violently painted.
So here we have a mix --or mix up-- of placid symmetry and a feeling of sharp instability.
Ed sets up a nicely balanced fulcrum and then kicks it down.
So, why? Why this arrangement? What did Degas want us to experience? Here is a place seemingly peaceful, yet he is composing things in a way which suggest disturbing undercurrents. Did he merely want a visually dynamic pattern? Or is he setting up an unspoken drama?
And is this kind of compositional sophistication, suggestiveness and thoughtfulness useful in children’s books?
I believe so.