Little-and yet everything- is left to the imagination in Douglas Gorsline's Bar Scene. Seated at a crowded urban bar is a young woman. She is almost elegant in her silk blouse, fur coat and broad-brimmed black hat. Though she sits with her shoulders parallel to the picture plane, and has been placed squarely in the middle of the foreground, her thoughts-and her gaze-are clearly directed elsewhere. Standing behind her, is an older man. As he tips his head back to drink, he, too, is looking off to his left, but with eyes that are conspicuously narrowed. The lengthening ash on his cigarette suggests that his left hand has not recently moved from the woman's shoulder.

Where the smoldering cigarette gives a clue about time lapsed between the two figures in their current position in the painting, the woman's rumpled neckline invites the viewer to imagine what has transpired between the two of them in the time before they came to be seated at the bar. The woman's open blouse is bunched and gaping at her waistline as if mis-buttoned. The pointed blouse collar that is smoothed on top of her fur coat on her right, is tucked beneath on the left side. The man's shirt is also wrinkled, possibly unbuttoned behind the tie, and not tidily tucked in at the belt-line.

This foreground scene is connected with the rest of room by the line of smoke rising from the cigarette and the curve of the bar, along which are seated several single men and another couple. The setting has been recently identified as Costello's, a popular New York City bar that was well-known to the painter.[1] Though the figures themselves are not specific, the attention to the details of the space and the clothing are, suggesting that the moment Gorsline has captured was a moment observed. The painting is dated in the lower right-hand corner: 1942, a complicated period in American and world history. Although it does not take a world at war to foster relationships that are at once intimate and distant, the war certainly complicated many relationships between women and men.

[1] Marie Via, "Douglas Warner Gorsline Bar Scene [1942], " In: Marjorie Searl, ed. Seeing America: Painting and Sculpture from the Collection of the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester (Rochester, NY: Memorial Art Gallery) 2006, pp. 249-253.


The connection between the young woman and the older man is complicated. Physically, he stands above her with his hand firmly grasping her shoulder with a smoldering cigarette between his fingers. Their disheveled clothes imply that they have both undressed and redressed in haste. If there has been an intimate sexual encounter, there seems to be no emotional intimacy between them. The difference in their ages, and the uneasiness of their relationship creates tension in the foreground of the painting. The anonymous figures also in the bar suggest a broader commentary about the historical moment in which it was painted.

Both the two central figures, and the crowd in the background may reflect the domestic situation in the 1940's when young American men were fighting overseas, and roles for women were shifting. The roles for men were also being redefined. Those men who were not accepted for military service due to age, physical or mental disability remained behind. Those who returned from war early due to physical or mental disabilities often found themselves in changed circumstances--sometimes unable to work or needing to find different work and different relationships. As such, this painting provides a focus for discussion of relationships, gender roles, sexuality, and power during war.


Dated 1942

Primary Source

Seeing America: Painting and Sculpture from the Collection of the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester (Rochester, NY: Memorial Art Gallery) 2006