Berthold Woltze: The Irritating Gentleman

The Irritating Gentleman: Berthold Woltze

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.

17 thoughts on “The Irritating Gentleman: Berthold Woltze”

  1. Pingback: Large Fierce Mammal » Dark Sentiments Season 13 — Day 22: Der lästige Kavalier

  2. “A bulging travel bag decorated with the naturalistic picture of a rose in the midst of foliage lays on the empty seat next to her”

    Should be “lies”.

    1. No. Lays is correct:
      Lay means “to place something down flat,” while lie means “to be in a flat position on a surface.” The key difference is that lay is transitive and requires an object to act upon, and lie is intransitive, describing something moving on its own or already in position.

        1. IrritatingGentleman

          Lies is indeed correct. “The bag lies”, i.e. “the bag rests in a flat position.” If you wanted to use “lay” you’d have to say “The bag is laid.” i.e. “the bag is placed down flat.”

  3. There is a hidden meaning because the name on the box is the artist itself and it means she had attended his funeral and not irritated but is in sorrow she cries but the tear is only in one eye means her other side of her personality is not crying but irritated to the man

    1. I’m glad you noticed. The person didn’t look closely enough or do their research. She has a tissue in her hand and is wearing all black.

  4. It doesn’t look like a First-Class railway carriage, though that could be date. It’s a rather plain design. It could be a local train.

    I don’t know the German railway history but where would the woman be travelling to? Back to her parents?

    1. Look at what she’s wearing..All black. She has a tissue. She is mourning from a death and he is not noticing.

  5. An additional comment with regard to her hair and the fact that it’s down. This painting was done in 1874. Girls back then only started putting their hair up once they reached a certain age usually at some point in their late teens. She is WAY too young for him to be talking to her the way he’s trying to, and he needs to leave her alone immediately. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was reaching for the hatpin she likely has with her.

    Also, we don’t know the man’s endeavour is sexual in nature. Irritating as all hell? Yes. Completely lacking in social cues that clearly signify she’s not interested in his attention? Absolutely.

    1. Oh, I think there’s sexual intention to the demeanor of the man. He is forcing his attention on the vulnerable girl. Can you possibly imagine him doing that to a boy? Her discomfort possibly arouses him.

  6. There is an irregularity in the girl’s eyes. Her right eye is gazing forward, whereas her left eye stares out of the painting towards the viewer. Perhaps this was done to instil some sense of the turmoil felt by the girl, on an otherwise-expressionless face.

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