A woman sits beside a bath, drying her hair. She pitches forward, one arm raised to rub the towel on her neck, the other reaching back awkwardly, perhaps to steady herself or perhaps to grasp the towel on the back of the chair. The ungainly but authentic-looking pose makes it easy to believe that Degas was present in the woman’s room, catching her before she could straighten herself. She was actually a model posing in his studio, and would have held the position for some time while Degas made the preliminary drawing.
Degas started to use pastels after 1880, and in the mid-1880s he used these for a series of nudes. Far from the classical nudes of ancient Greece and Rome, Degas depicted real women engaged in the everyday activities of washing or bathing. This was a deliberate attack on tradition. He wrote: ‘hitherto the nude has always been represented in poses which presuppose an audience, but these women of mine are honest and simple folk… It is as if you looked through a keyhole.'
Edgar Degas is often referred to as an Impressionist painter, but his techniques and theories were different from theirs in several ways. Like them, he often portrayed nineteenth-century urban French life in all its garish modernity, and from 1874 he did exhibit at Impressionist exhibitions. But while Impressionist artists like Monet almost abandoned line for colour, Degas was a great draughtsman. He adhered to his early classical training: drawing as the basis for all representation. Throughout his career, his approach to the creation of any picture was highly disciplined and entailed a great many preparatory studies both painted and drawn, often in charcoal.
From at least 1870, Degas suffered from a painful eye condition that needed constant treatment, periods of rest and efforts to find new ways of working. Because it was difficult for him to paint out of doors, he worked in a studio with controlled lighting, describing daylight as ‘more Monet than my eyes can stand’. He became increasingly conscious that perception is a matter of choice and wrote that for him, ‘drawing isn’t a matter of what you see, it’s a question of what you can make other people see.’
For this and a number of other reasons, after 1880 Degas turned to pastels as a preferred medium. Their matt texture resembled the frescoes of the Italian Renaissance that he admired. Pastels in a variety of bright, ‘modern’ colours, some recent scientific creations, were available on the market, and they enabled him to draw with colour. ‘I am a colourist with line’, he wrote.
In the mid-1880s, Degas used these pastels for a series of nudes. Far from the classical nudes of ancient Greece and Rome that inspired his contemporary, Ingres (see, for example, Angelica rescued by Ruggiero), Degas’s nudes were real women engaged in the everyday activities of washing or bathing. This was a deliberate attack on tradition. He wrote: ‘hitherto the nude has always been represented in poses which presuppose an audience, but these women of mine are honest and simple folk… It is as if you looked through a keyhole.' He might well have said ‘through a lens’ rather than a keyhole. His interest in the new art of photography, and how the click of the shutter captured and froze a moment of action, continued to motivate him throughout his life, especially when painting these and other subjects in motion, such as dancers at the Opera and horses racing.
In this picture a woman sits beside a bath, drying her hair. She pitches forward with one arm raised to rub the towel on her neck. The other arm reaches back awkwardly, perhaps to steady herself on the edge of the bath, perhaps to grasp the second towel on the back of the chair. Both towels are swathed around the woman, almost like the drapery of a classical nude. Although the painting is an attack on contemporary neo-classicism, perhaps Degas was allowing himself a small homage to his early training, and perhaps subtly elevating the woman’s status. Or perhaps he was using irony. He has given the fabric a marble-like texture, with sculptural folds indicated by short dark strokes of pastel warmed a little with pale pink; the only real suggestion of ease or comfort is in the woman’s foot pushed into her yellow slipper on the flowered carpet.
The ungainly but authentic-looking pose makes it easy to believe that Degas was present in the woman’s room, catching her the moment before she could straighten herself. She was in fact a model posing in his studio, and would have held the position for some time while Degas made the preliminary drawing, probably standing on a raised platform. He began with a visible charcoal outline of her arms and torso. Charcoal modelling can also be seen under the lattice of pink pastel strokes on her back, marking the crease in the flesh made by her shoulder pushing back as she twists her arm round to reach out.
Elsewhere the colours are strong and vivid, almost like those of the Impressionists, but in other places are more diffused. The brilliant yellow of the chair and the wall above it is held in check by calming strokes of blue. However energised are the colours and the strokes of pastel that make them, Degas allowed nothing to soften the impact of the startling red of the woman’s hair. It is echoed in a touch under her armpit, but tempered in the carpet by dark olive green.
The woman is almost uncannily alive. Although she was a model, a partner in the making of the picture, Degas has kept her face hidden. She is anonymous and depersonalised (as are the other women in this series of nudes), and as we look through the keyhole, or the lens, we are made to feel that she doesn’t know we are here. We are invited to witness an unknown woman in a very intimate moment. We intrude; the picture is beautiful but unnerving. We look and marvel but may be left with the impression that we should turn around, walk away and leave her to her privacy.
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