Ombres portées (Cast shadows), 1891

Ombres portées (Cast Shadows)
Oil on canvas, signed and dated lower right, 1891
117 x 68 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay

The shadow’s share

The painting depicts a couple set against a beige rose wall covering with discreet motifs. The light source is artificial, perhaps a gas lamp, or perhaps electric lighting, which was already used in 1891. In any case, the light source is at the bottom of the composition and pointing upwards. No background, no decor, nothing but this couple and its shadow.

The man is seated in three-quarter profile. He is looking at the young woman standing by his side, slightly behind. Their bodies are facing each other. Their faces, which are painted with extreme precision – often the case in Friant- are at the center of the composition. On the same diagonal, each face – the woman’s slightly over- is on either side of the vertical line that divides the painting in two.

The man’s rather round and red face is viewed in profile to accentuate the intensity of his stare. He is blushing as he watches the woman with persistence and feverishness. He gazes at the woman with intensity, his eyes are glued to her. His forehead wrinkling as he raises his eyebrows, he is begging her, while holding her abandoned hand in his fingers. This is not the tender and loving hand of a lover. No languor in this abandonment.

The woman, in restraint, avoids the man’s gaze, she turns her eyes away, towards the ground, her head slightly tilted to the right. Her oval face clearly contrasts with that of the man. Friant chose a cooler color scheme of blues to accentuate the milky transparency of her skin showing through her veil. The small touch of pink on her cheeks echoes the discreet red ribbon of her hat. This woman seems inaccessible, she is lost in her dreams, mysterious, absent.

In a process later used in movies, Friant plays with optical effects. The voluntary inversion and distortion of shadows, stretching the woman’s and shortening the man’s, emphasizes this impression of distance. The gap between the protagonists’ shadows is greater than that of their heads themselves.

Although she occupies the left side of the composition, the woman, wrapped in her shadow like a thick velvet coat, seems to be escaping the scene. She is drawn towards her shadow and a part of herself she neglected. The woman is eluding the confrontation and the futile drama, she leaves the scene and distances herself. Unlike her companion, she no longer seeks her image in his eyes. Freed from the quest of her reflection, freed from basic narcissism, she voluntarily lets go of the illusion of holding and owning for this shadow, for this cast shadow making her whole. The cast shadow becomes a carrier.

Mô Frumholz-Burtin

Translated from French to English by Agnès Penot