Melancholy, 1874 by Edgar Degas

SELDOM Dm THE ARTIST PAINT with such deep feeling as in this small picture where an arresting composition is balanced by profound psychological insight. Always alert to find new effects of lighting, Degas must often have seen a face take on unexpected aspects when firelight played over it; here he captured these subtle reflections, contrasting them with daylight which floods the background of the canvas. The thrust of the figure into a tense, almost cramped pose, is daringly emphasized by the line of the sofa, while the harmony of browns and reds helps to fix attention on the intensely rendered features. Nothing intrudes to spoil this unity of effect and it is typical of Degas that the fireplace is only suggested and not included in the design.

Most often the artist refused to depict in his portraits the outward signs of a deep interior life. A classical restraint kept Degas from seizing moments of despair or stress; he preferred a formal calm. But here he has portrayed a more profound mood. This unknown model staring into the fire stares into herself; the face is subtly charged with the marks of her introspection. It is interesting to note that the somewhat literary title, Melancholy, is not of Degas' choosing. Earlier the picture had been called simply Young Woman Seated on a Sofa, and it is very probable that the artist would have disdained any other name for it.