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?
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.