Although the identity of the sitter in this portrait is a mystery, Edgar Degas conveyed her character by capturing the overwhelming sorrow to which she has succumbed. Posed with her head tilted and leaning against the back of her left hand, she appears weary. Her languorous expression and red-rimmed eyes, together with the limp right arm hanging at her side, suggest a physical or emotional malady, though nothing in the painting confirms the cause of her affliction. Hidden beneath a brown robe and full white gown, her pose is ambiguous; it is unclear if she sits, stands, or leans. The Convalescent attests to Degas's interest in the world of women--their physical characteristics and surroundings, and their complex emotional and psychological conditions.
Unlike traditional nineteenth-century portraits, which were commissioned and usually left the artist's studio upon completion, this depiction of an unidentified woman remained in Degas's studio for at least fifteen years. The painting is unconventional in other ways as well; The Convalescent is more psychologically suggestive and spatially ambiguous than typical portraits of the time, such as Franz Xaver Winterhalter's official portrait, Leonilla, Princess of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn. Degas's thick, unblended brushstrokes and flattened space bring the figure forward, conveying informality and intimacy.