Denotation And Connotation In The Representation OF Protagonist In Painting

Edgar Degas, “Portrait of Diego Martelli”, 1879

One of the remarkable features of the “first glance” impression is that it can be taken as personification of common sense, i.e. opposite of carelessness in a perception. The first glance, as if, “believes” that it registers a stable and basic world, it seems realistic, rooted in human eyes, a kind of an experienced playmate of space and material things settled in it. So, when we see in the painting Diego Martelli, an Italian journalist sitting on a light chair, we confidently don’t question our impression. We see that he is sitting right there, may be, not too comfortably, but for sure. We know this. The first glance takes itself seriously, with self-respect. It is not visualizing Diego Martelli as Degas sees him. Degas’ daring connotative contour of his protagonist’s sitting posture impressively undermines what our eyes tell us: that Diego Martelli is sitting. It is, as if, Degas is saying that in art, when man is sitting it is not necessarily so.

Degas, as if, trapping us inside our own vision to prove to us that we are “blind“. We look again and we begin to see more – that Diego Martelli is not sitting but… dancing. He, probably, just wrote a piece which he is very pleased with. His thoughts continue to swim using his papers and folders like sliding boats. He is dancing and balancing with posture of his arms the joyful movements of his legs. His folding chair is, as if, already falling down, and his legs are rushing up and down by the energy of his cheerfulness. Diego Martelli is dancing while sitting, but isn’t it the same as to say that he is sitting while dancing? Isn’t the action of the soul more important than the action of the body – isn’t dancing of the soul more substantial than the sitting of the body?

degas self portrait new
Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917), Self-portrait, 1857-58


There are thousands of children in London to whom the word home conjures up no delightful memory of coziness and warmth, but of cold and desolation, varied by parental violence and brutality. Such homes are numerous enough to produce a stock of children who regard the streets as their sole place of refuge.
Gabriel P. Weisberg, “The Realist Tradition (French Painting and Drawing 1830 – 1900)”, Cleveland Museum of Art, 1980, p. 195

The boy’s livery, as well as the brass disk worn on his chest, suggests that he was a member of the Shoe Black Brigade. He may even have been sponsored by Carr’s, the blacking’ manufacturers advertised upon his brush box… Shoeblacks were a relatively recent introduction to the London streets… Their origin as a significant section of street traders goes back to 1851 when one of the “Ragged school” teachers, a certain “Rob Ray” Mac Gregor, was inspired to employ vagrant boys to clean the shoes of visitors to the Great Exhibition… During Exhibition the original twenty-five boys cleaned 101,000 pairs of shoes… By 1886 the Shoe Black Brigade was one of the permanent institutions of the land. The members of this brigade were encouraged to be politely solicitous, and a virtuous, hard working example of the trade… The boy in Bastien-Lepage’s painting is obviously confident of earning his living… Despite the melee surrounding him, he could afford to lounge at his post. His causal pose, aptly expresses the character of the London libertine
Gabriel P. Weisberg, Ibid, p. 196

Jules Bastien-Lepage, “The London Bootblack”, 1882

In this twelve year-old London bootblack Bastien-Lepage as our guide shows us a shoeshine little dandy. We see a child who is made to work but feels himself as a dandy – he leans with his right arm on the street post, as if it’s like the armchair existing to support his physical comfort. But doesn’t his posture undermine what we know about his social status as a child-laborer, like Diego Martelli’s dance undermines the fact that he is just sitting?

But if Martelli’s dance is the essence of his posture correcting the surface/appearance suggesting that he is sitting, dandyism of the shoeshine boy is his psychological defense – a desperate desire not to feel what he is in reality just a shoeshine/bootblack. Bastien-Lepage here uses connotation not to emphasize the essence (hidden behind the appearance and breaking through the surface to state itself), but to emphasize the false self-image of the boy who is forced by the reality to surrender to the necessity to work not to feel hungry and the meaningless in his life. When truth is unbearable lie becomes psychological savior, and then art uses this lie as truth in order to show the people’s need to lie to themselves as a reflection of the truth of human condition. Bootblack “pretends” to be a “dandy” to mask the fact that he is a bootblack working and living on the streets. His unconscious motivates him to lie to himself – to act as if he was a dandy in order to make his self-image less “shameful” and burdensome.

The Bastien-Lepage’s semantic (connotative) image of the bootblack is very close to and very far from that of Degas in “Diego Martelli”. We see a bootblack standing on the street while waiting for customers. Look at his posture. Our eyes inform us that he is leaning on the post and a little tired and a bit bored, but we also see something else. We see what the boy’s unconscious wants us to see (what his unconscious wants him to feel) – that he is in a pose of a dancer (that he is a dancer). His right hand supporting his head is, as if, not supporting but touching it as a movement in his pantomime, as artistic gesture, while his left hand is touching his hip as a bravado gesture of a creature enjoying dancing as a free – leisure, activity. The same with his legs, helping each other to rest while working – their postures look as if they were enjoying/giving themselves to the life of dance.

But look at the boy’s eyes. They remind us of the gaze of the people we see in cafes today, who face their laptops when sharing coffee-table and consuming their standard snacks while expecting a message from their customers. The boy’s gaze is as empty as the emptiness of seller who are understaffed with/short of customers. If the bootblack’s gaze is carrying some sadness, it’s not because of the necessity to work, but because the customers he desperately needs are absent. The element of sadness in his gaze is not the reaction of a human soul on his existential predicament (he is too young), but a reaction of a technical fragment of his psyche (bootblack reasoning) left unoccupied in its need to work. His gaze is existentially empty like the gaze of technical specialists could be if the technical toy of their special interest could be taken away from them by those who finance it.

This gaze of life emptied from itself is the most important point the artist makes about the condition of children who have to work in order to live. The bootblack’s greasy palm dirtying his cheek may eventually awaken his soul, and then we’ll see more sadness and, finally, despair in his gaze. His pantomimic dance around his working place will not be sustained for long.

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848 – 1884), a Self-portrait made a few days before his death