Room 8 London and Paris 1870–1910

Interior lives

The 1900s

This final room is dominated by Degas’s powerful Interior and Sickert’s Ennui. Both paintings evoke psychological states through the studied arrangement of figures in domestic interiors.

Degas’s Interior has also been known as The Rape since the early twentieth century. But the subject is not clear. What is the relationship between the man and the woman? What is really going on in this dramatically lit bedroom?

Sickert certainly knew this painting, and he must have had it in mind when he was preparing his memorable Ennui (‘boredom’). But again, we are left with unanswered questions. What is the relationship between these figures? What has taken place between them?

Alongside contemporary works by Vuillard and Bonnard, Sickert’s Ennui shows the enduring legacy of Degas. The unsettling bleakness, sexual and psychological content, and narrative ambiguity of such paintings are unmistakably modern, suggesting new directions for art in the twentieth century.

… doomed to live together yet without intimacy
Emile Zola, Thérèse Raquin 1873

Edgar Degas Interior (The Rape) 1868-9

Edgar Degas
Interior (The Rape) 1868-9

Image courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Henry P McIlhenny Collection in Memory of Frances P McIlhenny 1986

This powerful painting suggests a domestic drama. But Degas has left it open to different interpretations. Each of us is left to speculate about what has happened.

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘Ennui’ c.1914
Walter Richard Sickert
Ennui c.1914

The contrast between the standing, fully-dressed man and the seated woman with her bare shoulders implies emotional brutality. The gloomy interior setting and the great physical distance between them may indicate physical or sexual violence. This has inspired the alternative title, The Rape, given to the work in the early twentieth century.

The cold and awkward relationship between the two figures in this painting suggests some sort of domestic drama. But Sickert has left us to guess what the story is.

The idea of enduring weariness and disgust was also a strong literary theme in the nineteenth century, although Sickert does not appear to be referring to any specific written source. Instead, it is the cramped interior and unsettling colours which convey a sense of tension.