The Irritating Gentleman is an 1864 genre painting in the realist style by German artist Berthold Woltze.
Analysis of The Irritating Gentleman
Berthold Woltze’s The Irritating Gentleman depicts a girl dressed in the black of mourning with a tearful face that looks out to us with a resigned expression on her face, perhaps asking us with her gaze to disencumber her of the attentions of the man leaning over to her. The painting is done in Realist style yet the face of the ignorant man has the quality of a caricature.
The Irritating Gentleman (Der lästige Kavalier in his native German) is the most famous painting by Berthold Woltze, a German genre painter and professor. To the wide public, he is primarily known for precisely this painting – any everyday snapshot allows us to experience narrative genre painting at its finest.
Inside a train carriage hurtling through the German countryside, an importunate well-heeled gent is leaning over the wooden partition at the back of his seat in order to try to engage a visibly uninterested young woman in conversation. He is dressed in an impeccable suit with a bow tie, has glasses, wears a fashionable hat, and is sporting a cigarette as he leans over with an almost lecherous smile. The elderly companion with whom he is supposed to share his partition is looking aside, possibly tired though possibly uneasy about the gent’s patently inappropriate sexual endeavor.
Though the painting is titled after the character whose effrontery has brought the scene into being, the emotional and structural center of this painting is in the face, most likely the eye, of the young girl as she looks in our direction in what may appear to us a silent appeal. She appears to be crying — a single tear on one side of her face can be seen — whether in anger or fear, we do not know.
The young woman — who could very well be in her teen years — is dressed in a polite middle-class manner, a black cloak over a black button-up shirt and a black skirt. She has a black hair circle, and wears a pair of mostly black gloves, while her black hat sits beside her; she is holding a maroon coin purse and a white handkerchief.
A bulging travel bag decorated with the realistic picture of a rose in the midst of foliage lies on the empty seat next to her — all the seating, we come to realize, is made of wooden benches riveted into the cars. Opposite the young woman a wooden box sits — on one side of which the painter’s signature is bestowed so as to appear a manufacturer’s black print — on top of some cloth.
The detail of a genre painting set in the contemporary age communicated to its original viewer’s precise ideas on its subjects’ characters and social origin. But in The Irritating Gentleman, there is little we need to be told to understand the unpalatable social circumstance — that of unrequited sexual advances.
Berthold Woltze has made his irritating gentleman exquisitely irritating by making him rich as well as important. His effusive smile shines with self-regard, but it has no convivial note in which the young lady could partake. That is because his satisfaction is all for himself. We can well imagine that he would be pleased with his exploit even if absolutely nothing positive came of it and the young lady stood up and left at her earliest convenience.
The young woman captivates us at once for she makes us realize that nothing about this situation is amusing, quite to the contrary. Her expression of dignified, and therefore restrained; her suffering encompasses the entire gravity of the irritating gentleman’s disrespect. In no part of her person except for her face does the young woman communicate her grief. Lending pathos to that sentiment, and incidentally a new kind of beauty to her proud visage, the tears that have begun showing also make her blue eyes shine.
The Irritating Gentleman is a snapshot of vainglorious self-regard asserting itself for a moment over proud innocence, just enough to cause hurt. It is a depiction of politeness violated in an act that exploits its assumption for an essentially impotent kind of sexual assault conducted by means of words and physical proximity. By the immediate reaction of disquiet and contempt that it manifests in the average viewer, Berthold Woltze’s painting may be said to have a strong moralistic value.
Berthold Woltze’s The Irritating Gentleman is in the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, Germany.