Another interpretation quiz and answer

Interpretation of art often depends on how far in time the interpreter is from the artwork. The young officer choosing stockings (from my previous post) would be interpreted very differently by his contemporaries 160 years ago, and modern observers.

But can there be any doubt on how to interpret this girl, sketched by Pavel Fedotov in 1848-49?

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What do you think is going on in this picture?

Well, there’s a letter on the table and something in that letter has made her collapse in tears on the sofa. Did someone die? Did someone reject her?

It must be something like that, and we can relate to it, because we know what a callous text can do to a sensitive lady. A modern artist would probably draw an iPhone on the floor, adding a crack in the glass of its screen as a broken heart symbol.

All these theories would be wrong.

A 19th-century observer would dismiss a tragic event. Because in this case there would be someone to comfort the lady. A relative with words of condolence or a servant with a glass of water. A lady in distress in the 19th century would not be left unattended, except when it was caused by something personal and secret.

A sour love letter? Possible, but a young lady from a good family would not be collapsing so sincerely and violently, except if in the presence of other people who must be made aware of her suffering.

It could be an interpretational deadlock, but fortunately for us Fedotov added explanatory text at the bottom of the drawing:

“Oh wretched me!…  They are friends: they know each other! And I promised my hand to both, just looking at their portraits… Oh, wretched me!”

Could this happen today? Agreeing to marry two men based on their Facebook profiles without bothering to check if they are friends? Hardly.

Could this happen then? Easily.


  1. Very interesting! I like how you expressed your thoughts and I appreciate the depth with which you examined this artwork. I would never have guessed the true cause of her sadness.

  2. La situation me parait , confortable malgré la simplicité de la déco, donc un lit une place, dort seule, jeune étudiante , bonne, : fatigue , stress, rupture … L’étagère avec quelques livres peut- être aussi une indication …!!!

    1. I love your take on this! ))
      It’s the student recipe for procrastination: put off work until the night before the exam, open the textbook, and… weep!

  3. Her back is arched because she is giggling. She is the new governess, playing ‘Hide And Seek’ with the children.

    She can’t believe her luck in landing the position. The master of the house is recently widowed. He is young and handsome. She has hopes for what might transpire.

    That is why she keeps one toe pointed, stretched out, in case he comes into the room and sees her.

  4. The item on the table looks more like a book than a letter. Rather difficult and improbable situation for a woman. Perhaps, it would be easier in this day and age if the woman was living independently.

      1. Do you think she would put the two opponents together in a photo frame? I think he came up with the painting and story behind it was last minute after thought. Women didn’t have a lot of freedom in those days.

        1. Well, i guess she could ) A modern girl would probably keep her potential dates in the same folder on her computer. But what I know with certainty is that Fedotov’s method was always to think up a story first, and execute it later, sometimes much later, after weeks and months of studies )

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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