Hélène Rouart stands in her father’s study, her hands resting on the back of his empty chair. Works from his art collection can be seen behind her, including three Egyptian statues in a glass case and, above her, a Chinese wall hanging. Although Degas set down the final composition with little subsequent alteration, he did rework areas of the surface, even applying pastel directly to the canvas.
Hélène was the daughter of the engineer and amateur artist Henri Rouart, a friend of Degas who had a substantial collection of contemporary French painting, including work by Degas. When Hélène was nine, Degas had painted a portrait of her sitting on her father’s knee. She was 23 and married when this portrait was painted, but Degas does not show her wedding ring, perhaps to emphasise her status as a daughter, rather than as a wife.
Degas never painted portraits to commission but instead chose sitters from his family and friends. Hélène was the daughter of Henri Rouart, a Master Engineer and amateur landscape painter, who had exhibited with the Impressionists. He had been at school with Degas, but the two began a lifelong friendship when Degas served under Rouart’s command during the Siege of Paris in 1871. Rouart also had a substantial collection of contemporary French painting, including work by Degas, who regularly attended Friday dinner at the family home in Paris.
Degas had previously painted Hélène, aged nine, sitting on her father’s knee, and decided to paint her again as an adult. In a letter to her father from 1883, he compared her red hair to that of women in Venetian Renaissance paintings. Degas originally planned a double portrait of Hélène with her mother, possibly to complement the earlier picture of father and daughter, but abandoned this idea. Once he had decided upon the final composition, Degas set it down with little subsequent alteration. However, he did rework some areas, even using pastel directly on the canvas.
In the final composition, the 23-year-old Hélène stands in her father’s study, her hands resting on the back of his empty chair. Although she was now married, Degas painted out her wedding ring, perhaps to emphasise her status as a daughter, rather than as a wife. The chair itself came from Madame Rouart’s father, Jacob-Désmalter, a cabinet maker. Using an empty chair to refer to an absent loved one was not unusual, but Degas may have also been prompted by portraits by Van Dyck that show a woman standing by a chair, one of which he had sketched when in Genoa in 1859.
A few carefully chosen works from Henri Rouart’s extensive art collection can be seen behind Hélène. Their full meanings and associations would only have been known to Degas and the Rouarts. On the right, behind Hélène’s head, is Corot’s Castel dell’Ovo in Naples (private collection). Both Degas and Rouart were admirers of early Corot, and Naples was also a reference to Degas’s own Neapolitan origins. Rouart also owned Corot’s Woman in Blue (Louvre, Paris), which may have inspired the choice of Hélène’s blue dress. Below Corot’s Naples seascape is a drawing by Millet of a peasant girl seated at the foot of a haystack (Louvre, Paris). Rouart frequently visited Barbizon at the weekends to paint with Millet, and owned over a dozen of his paintings together with many drawings. Along the top of the picture an embroidered Chinese silk wall-hanging helps bind the composition, in part through its russet red, which echoes the warm reds, oranges and browns that dominate the painting. Below, on the left of the picture, are three wooden Egyptian statues in a glass case, which Henri Rouart may have brought back from his trip to Egypt in 1878. Degas exaggerated the size of the figures, which were in fact quite small (around 70 cms).
This is a painting of paradoxes. Although a portrait of Hélène, her environment says more about her father and, to a lesser extent, about Degas. Surrounded by pictures and artefacts, Hélène stands impassively, the slight tilt of her stance and position of her head echoing the Egyptian statues. She does not meet our gaze, but instead looks into the distance with an air of sadness (possibly a reference to the recent death of her mother). Her thoughts seem to be elsewhere – indeed, given the empty chair and its history, and Egyptian funerary art, this is perhaps a picture about absence.
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