In the shower the other morning, I was pondering what I could write about in my next blog post. And then as I grabbed my big fluffy towel, it came to me – I’d find images by Edgar Degas (1834-1917) of women after the bath, drying themselves. Surprisingly, I realized I hadn’t yet written about Degas’ pastels on this blog. Time to rectify that! (You can read a blog I wrote about some of Degas’ work on my gailsibley.com blog by clicking here.)
Do you have any idea how many paintings (pastel and oil) Degas painted around this topic?? Plenty! And you can find so many of these images online. What I found though was that much of the information was incomplete – no size, no location. It took me some time to weed through them – I only wanted to present to you work that I found on museum websites with the full information on each piece. All the images here were taken from those websites as I suspect they show the most accurate colour.
After 1875, Degas began to use pastel frequently, even using the medium for finished pieces. In May 1886, at the Eighth (and last) Impressionist Exhibition, Degas exhibited a series of several pastels of nude women involved in bathing – washing, after the bath drying themselves, and combing their hair. They were the talk of the exhibition with some viewers criticizing the ungainly and awkward poses while others commented on the honesty of the depictions and Degas’ use of colour. Certainly, they weren’t idealized pictures of women but rather, images of the modern woman going about her daily ablutions.
Degas continued with this interest in using pastels through the 1890s and into the 1900s. By then, his eyesight had begun to fail and the work became more abstracted and more about the formal elements of painting. The women are less individualized and more a collection of line, colour, texture, and form.
Let’s take a look at some of his pastels of women after the bath, drying themselves (earliest to latest).
1. Edgar Degas, “Woman Drying Herself After the Bath,” 1876-77, pastel over monotype on paper, 18 x 23 3/4 in, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California (This is as large of an image I could capture from the website.)
Eventually purchased by Claude Monet, this piece shows a figure and surrounding room. The woman and her towel cast a shadow on the bed and this is balanced out by the white petticoat with its highlights and shadows on the right. All the accoutrements of bathing and after the bath are visible – the shallow tub with sponge, the basin and pitcher, and various perfume bottles. The woman is completely at ease looking at herself in the mirror. The open door with its dark rectangle suggests the possible entry of someone, perhaps a client. The figure forms the central pivot around which a picture full of diagonals and parts of objects (the bed and petticoat) swirl. Don’t you love the red slippers? (This painting was painted over a monotype. Degas made a first monotype and then printed a second one over which he created this painting.)
2. Edgar Degas, “Woman in a Tub,” c.1883, pastel on paper, 27 1/2 x 27 1/2 in, Tate Gallery, London
A woman kneels in the tub, drying herself. What looks like a dressing gown lies on the nearby sofa. Like the pastel above, a door is open behind her. We have no sense of this woman’s social class or if she works as a prostitute. She could be any woman at her toilette. Degas’ rendering of the soft glowing skin with its subtle colours and shadows is exquisite. The angle of the head, face hidden in shadow, hair coiled on top, is so beautifully drawn as is the rest of the body. I particularly love the reflected light on her right thigh near her knee. The woman is calm and intent on what she is doing, oblivious of being watched.
3. Edgar Degas, “Toilet of a Woman,” 1884, pastel on mounted brown paper, 19 3/4 x 19 3/4 in, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
Another earlier piece, this pastel feels full of movement with the blur of the towel in motion as a woman dries off. Another brown sofa with towel or dressing gown over it, it supports a kneeling woman, head down and face hidden. I find this piece has a tension in it unlike the pastel above – it comes from the action of the towel and the awkward precariousness of the figure on the sofa. My favourite parts are her feet, right over left, balancing the body, and also the floral wallpaper 🙂
4. Edgar Degas, “Woman at Her Toilette drying her left foot,” 1886, pastel on cardboard, 21 3/8 x 20 5/8 in, Musee d’Orsay, Paris
This pastel was one of the
suite of nudes shown at the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition. Hard to believe that the critics could have found this beautiful nude to be ugly. In the quiet of her room, this young woman, hair loose, carefully dries her foot while sitting on a chair covered with her dressing gown. She is in her own world, totally oblivious of being watched by us through the open door. This side view is a difficult one to give form to and Degas has done a refined and elegant job of it.
5. Edgar Degas, “Woman Drying Her Foot,” 1885-86, pastel on buff wove paper, affixed to pulpboard, 19 3/4 x 21 1/4 in, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
This pastel may well have been in the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition as well. Here we have the full bathtub being used to prop the bather’s foot as she dries it. Is this the same auburn-haired model as in the above paintings? It appears Degas blended areas of the pastel (her centre back, the bathtub, her right leg) as well as leaving areas of hatched lines. There seems to be a strange confusion in the area around the right hand drying the foot – do you see what I mean?
6. Edgar Degas, “After The Bath, Woman Drying Herself,” c.1884-1886, reworked between 1890 and 1900, pastel on wove paper, 16 x 12 5/8 in, Musee d’Art Moderne Andre Malraux, Le Havre
This is a curious piece, with soft and polished parts where the texture of the paper is hardly visible, and other parts where the texture of the paper is clearly evident (at the top). There is none of the hatching or cross-hatching we associate with Degas’ work. There is a fold in the paper near the top which Degas did nothing to hide. This woman sits on a sofa, reaching up to dry the back of her neck. You can see the bathtub barely shown in the background top left.
7. Edgar Degas, “After The Bath,” c.1890-93 (dated in error by another hand:1885), pastel on tracing paper mounted on cardboard, 26 x 20 3/4 in, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California
Like the pastel above (and below), this woman dries the back of her neck. Degas was obviously fascinated by this everyday pose as a woman goes about drying herself after the bath. The gesture creates a tension in the back which allows for more evidence of the forms beneath the skin. Face hidden, the woman is completely anonymous especially when compared to the earlier work. The focus is on the woman’s back, so much so that it’s difficult to tell what happens with the rest of the body, for instance, how do her legs fit into the picture? She appears to be seated and surrounded by colourful clothing perhaps from which she will choose. This pastel has a more abstract feeling with intense colour and various pastel textures. Notice it was created on tracing paper. Click on the link to the museum above and go to ‘See all Paintings’ to read more. (For some reason, I was unable to directly link the image above to the one on the Museum’s website.)
8. Edgar Degas, “After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself,” c1890-5, pastel on wove paper laid on millboard, 40 6/8 x 38 3/8 in, National Gallery, London
This pastel is large, almost double the size of the one above. Degas seems to have begun the piece as another close-up view of a woman’s back as she dries her neck. In the end though, he extended the composition, adding more paper to the top and bottom of the composition. One of the parts of this painting that stand out for me is the pink pastel hatched over the gray areas of her back. Delightful!
9. Edgar Degas, “After the Bath, Woman With a Towel,” c. 1893-97, pastel on blue-gray wove paper, 27 7/8 x 22 9/16 in, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachussetts
This piece really begins to show the more vigorous stroke of Degas’ later years as his eyesight continued to fail. Curiously, the towel seems to be gathered along one edge almost suggesting a piece of clothing that she is slipping on. Yet the bathtub stands in front of this woman and she appears to be drying off. Again I am in awe of the subtle variations of form in her back that Degas has managed to achieve. A close look shows hatching going every which way and lost and found edges to create the illusion of skin. Marvellous!
10. Edgar Degas, “After the Bath – Woman Drying Herself,” c.1895, pastel on paper, 26 5/8 x 22 3/4 in, Courtauld Institute, London
All those different textures! Skin, towel, tub, upholstered chair, carpet, wallpaper. It’s fascinating that Degas chose to parallel the edge of the bathtub with the woman’s left arm rather than say, hide it with the arm. An interruption is made by the awkward movement of the right arm drying her left side. It appears that Degas may have added another piece of paper along the bottom. Can you see the dividing line? (There is no mention of it in the Courtauld Institute notes.) I love the redrawing of the right knee and perhaps there is also a change in the left (raised) hand. Oh to get a close look at these pastels in the flesh so to speak!
11. Edgar Degas, “After the Bath,” c. 1896-98, pastel on paper (two strips) mounted on cardboard, 26 x 24 in, E.G. Buehrle Collection, Zurich
Definitely a later piece, Degas focused fully on the woman’s back and surrounding cloth. What looks like the bathtub is shown at the lower left of the picture. Look at that wondrous hatching of different colours, for example her lower back – greens, reds, pinks, blues! Such confidence of pastel application!
12. Edgar Degas, “After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Nape,” 1898, pastel on wove paper mounted on cardboard, 24 1.2 x 25 5/8 in, Musee d’Orsay, Paris
Compared to the images above and below this one, this pastel looks positively refined and delicate. I am surprised it’s dated so late! The woman sits on the edge of the bathtub and dries her neck. This time, her hair is caught up in a pnoeytail rather than loose or in a bun. I rather like the panels of different colour behind her – they form an abstracted background as it’s difficult to make out what each represents. They almost look like curtains from the ruffling at the top. And what’s that dark shape to the right? The skirt of a woman come to help her? (There are other paintings by Degas of woman being helped by another – click here to see an example – but these were beyond the scope of this post!)
13. Edgar Degas, “Woman Drying Her Hair,” c.1905, pastel on paper, 28 1/8 x 24 3/4 in, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California
From around 1905, this vigorously painted pastel shows the decline of Degas’ eyesight. He uses the female form to create a montage of movement and colour. When I first looked at this painting, I couldn’t make out where and how her limbs worked. Finally I saw it – the limb that at first looked like a badly attached right arm is actually her left leg resting on the sofa while her right arm is mostly covered by the towel. I think it’s the conglomeration of limbs and right breast with little differentiation that create the confusion. You can see that Degas is no longer attempting an accurate drawing but instead appears to be reacting to the movement and colour he sees.
I hope you enjoyed this blog as much as I did putting it together. I’d love to know which is your favourite piece (I have numbered them) and why.
Until next time,
PS. Regarding whether or not Degas was an Impressionist or a Realist I have taken this info from the Metropolitan Museum’s website:
“Edgar Degas seems never to have reconciled himself to the label of “Impressionist,” preferring to call himself a “Realist” or “Independent.” Nevertheless, he was one of the group’s founders, an organizer of its exhibitions, and one of its most important core members. Like the Impressionists, he sought to capture fleeting moments in the flow of modern life, yet he showed little interest in painting plein air landscapes, favoring scenes in theaters and cafés illuminated by artificial light, which he used to clarify the contours of his figures, adhering to his Academic training.”
Degas exhibited in seven of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, missing only the seventh. Click here to read more about each of the exhibitions.