Frances Spalding on Woman at the Window by Edgar Degas
What I love about Degas's Woman at the Window (1871) is its informality. Figure and setting seem, like something found by chance, an unposed vignette, which the artist perhaps saw in passing, out of the corner of his eye, and which he must have registered later in the studio, using quick touches of oil paint on paper. But this is inaccurate.
The picture was preconceived, and a model obtained. And Degas deliberately set out to experiment with "essence", which involves draining paint of its oil and thinning it instead with turpentine. So the informality, as always in Degas's paintings, is calculated. The picture must have been begun in January 1871 because Paris was under siege, cut off from the outside world by the Prussian army. Owing to a shortage of food, restaurants had begun openly serving rats, dogs, cats and horses, and the payment Degas gave his model was a hunk of meat. Story has it that the woman was so hungry that, there and then, she ate it raw. Nothing of this desperation is shown here.
Yet the painting itself is not cut off from life. During the Franco-Prussian war Degas had joined the national guard as a volunteer. In the course of rifle training he had discovered that his eyesight was defective. From then on his eyes were a constant source of anxiety, and when his sight worsened in old age he feared blindness. Vision is inevitably precious to an artist who finds his subjects in the world around him, and in Woman at the Window the light takes on a value and importance that exceeds the norm. He may even have dressed the sitter in black, to heighten the contrast between her and the searing white light. Dense and opaque, the light is almost as substantial as the seated figure. Yet because we know that light alters, fades, gives way to darkness, we are aware, too, through their association, that the woman will eventually move, leave the room and disappear into some other life. We are shown a moment of rest, of stillness and reflection, yet pressing in on all sides is a sense of transience.
Anyone who rents a flat or takes a hotel room in Paris, or any other major city, will know the alteration caused by the act of opening a window. The silent and often slightly stale room is suddenly invaded by a cacophony, the noise of traffic, nearby building work, the shouts and smells of the neighbourhood. This is the subject of Umberto Boccioni's famous picture The Street Enters the House, in which a woman stands on a balcony looking down on to a busy city square. Degas's Woman at the Window is the antithesis of this. The woman sits with her back to the window, and though there is a slight hint of Parisian architecture it remains peripheral: the city is out of sight, out of mind.
What primarily fascinates Degas is the contre-jour effect. Set against the bright light, the woman's face disappears into shadow. Admittedly, the light catches the top half of her profile, for her head is turned away from us, but we are denied the kind of information that embodies character and presence. However hard we peer at the picture, she remains a cipher, a token for the solitary state.
There are many places in this picture where it looks unfinished. Degas is painting a riposte to all the over-stuffed, over-finished and over-fixed portraits that he would have seen annually at the French salon where he had exhibited during the 1860s. By the 1870s he and his friends, the impressionists, wanted to strip away tired conventions and reintroduce vitality into painting. They also wanted to catch the intrigue of modern life, including the most fleeting of moments. Degas was the most adept at creating a psychologically complex space. His pupil Walter Sickert said he learned from Degas the need for "unaccustomed points of view". So impressed was he with Woman at the Window that in 1902 he bought it. Unfortunately, he then varnished it and the picture darkened. But this did not destroy its hymn to light.