Lot 21
  • 21

Edgar Degas

15,000,000 - 20,000,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Edgar Degas
  • Femme nue, de dos, se coiffant (Femme se peignant)
  • Signed Degas (upper right)
  • Pastel on paper laid down on board


Goupil & Co., Paris (possibly acquired from the artist)

Ernest Chausson, Paris

Mme. Ernest Chausson, Paris (by descent from the above and sold: Hôtel Drouot, Paris, June 5, 1936, lot 7)

Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris & New York (acquired at the above sale)

Mrs. Herbert C. Morris, Bryn Mawr (acquired from the above on March 13, 1945, and until at least 1965)

Sale: Christie's New York, October 31, 1978, lot 10

Acquired at the above sale by A. Alfred Taubman


Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, Degas, 1924, no. 160, illustrated in the catalogue

Paris, Galerie Paul Rosenberg, Grands maîtres du XIXe siècle, 1931, no. 30

Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, L'Impressionisme, 1935, no. 15

Philadelphia Museum of Art, Degas, 1936, no. 45, illustrated in the catalogue

New York, Durand-Ruel Gallery, Pastels by Degas, 1943, no. 4

Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1964-65 (on loan)

New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais & Ottawa, Musée des beaux-arts du Canada, Degas, 1988-89, no. 284, illustrated in color in the catalogue


Paul Lafond, Degas, Paris, 1918, vol. I, illustrated p. 20

Paul-André Lemoisne, "Edgar Degas à propos d'une exposition récente," Revue de l'Art XLVI, June 1924, illustrated p. 105

Ambroise Vollard, Degas: An Intimate Portrait, New York, 1927, illustrated pl. 15

Les Beaux Arts, Paris, June-September 1935, illustrated p. 21

Paul-André Lemoisne, Degas et Son Oeuvre, Paris, 1946, vol. III, no. 849, illustrated p. 490

Paul-André Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, New York & London, 1984, vol. III, no. 849, illustrated p. 490

Robert Gordon & Andrew Forge, Degas, New York, 1988, illustrated in color p. 266

Catalogue Note

This study of a seated nude woman seen from the back, her arms raised as she combs her magnificent red hair, is a remarkable example of Degas’s supreme mastery of the subtleties and refinements of the pastel technique that from the mid-1880s became his principal medium [1]. A strong and supple contour defines the woman’s body. The luminous veils of color that describe the flesh tones in the her back are offset by the beautifully nuanced olive-brown that defines the hollow of the spine, the shadow below the left shoulder blade and the contour of the right hip. A faint, scribbled zigzag lightens the weight of the contour and a powdery dusting of gold down the right side and at the base of the back adds texture and warmth to the figure as a whole. The nude is harmoniously integrated with her surroundings in which a palette of russets, apricot yellows, lime and olive greens enrich the floor, the wall and the empty chair and compliment the cooler tones of the nude’s skin.

Degas found in pastel an ideal medium, a perfect fusion of color and line. His practice was to draw the bold outlines of his composition in charcoal or chalk and then build up the surface with successive layers of pastel. He seems to have employed a fixative of his own invention that allowed him to fix each layer before applying the next, so that one color could glow through another without them muddying together.

Degas’s interest in the solitary nude figure is connected with a major shift in his work in the mid-1880s. At around this time, the original Impressionist group was beginning to disintegrate as the artists moved away from modern-life subjects and fleeting effects that had been their main interest in the 1870s, in search of a more timeless and enduring art.  In Degas’s case, the multi-figured impressions of modern life - dancers on the stage or race-course scenes - the mobile focus and daring compositional strategies that characterized his work of the previous decade now gave way to a new simplification, a focus on the single figure from a close but conventional viewpoint and a synthetic classicism based on line, exemplified by Nude Woman Combing her Hair.

Female nudes are one of the pervasive themes of Degas’s late work but, in fact, they had their origin in his earliest work as can be seen from his history paintings such as Scene of War in the Middle Ages, c. 1863-65 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) in which he explores the female nude in a variety of poses. In the 1870s, he turned to the subject of the modern nude, particularly in his powerful dark-field monotypes, for example, Nude Woman Combing her Hair, 1879-83 (Cabinet des Dessins, Musée du Louvre, Paris), in which the model dramatically silhouetted against the light streaming in from the window behind, combs her magnificent mane of hair, announcing another theme of Degas’s late work.

Nude, Woman Combing her Hair can be linked to a suite of pastels of the female nude that he planned to show at the eighth, and what turned out to be the last, of the Impressionist group exhibitions in 1886. In the exhibition catalogue Degas described one of categories of the series as ‘women combing their hair’, although none of the seven exhibited works depicted this subject. It is likely that the present pastel and an earlier closely related and smaller work Nude Woman Combing her Hair, c. 1884-86 (State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg) were made in connection with this series, but in the end they were not included in the exhibition. The present work was acquired at some point by Degas’s friend the composer Ernest Chausson (1855-99). It was not unusual, especially in his later work, for Degas to explore a single subject through different variants. A third and probably slightly later variant is the Metropolitan’s Nude Woman Combing he Hair, c. 1888-90 (fig. 1) in which Degas applied the pastel in thickly encrusted layers and employed bolder, less naturalistic colours, deeper greens and pinks in the flesh tones, for example, and a hotter palette and denser textures in the background setting. By contrast, the color in the work under discussion is kept relatively quiet, as if Degas wanted to focus attention on the strength of his line.  

Degas presents us with a modern nude, an anonymous model posing in his studio, yet his composition derives much of its authority from its roots in the past. One cannot help but think of Titian looking at this ravishing, red-haired bather. And the union of color and line reconciles Degas’s enthusiasm for his two great idols, the foremost French painters of the preceding generation, Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), the exponent of rich, expressive color and Jean-Dominique Ingres (1755-1814), the master of pure line. And in this pastel’s stasis and classicizing calm, there is surely more than an echo of Ingres’s famous Valpinçon Bather, 1808 (Musée du Louvre, Paris) a painting Degas had copied in his youth.[2]

[1] Gary Tinterow dates this work to 1886-88, linking it to the series of nudes Degas made in connection with the 1886 Impressionist exhibition (in Degas (exhibition catalogue), Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1988-89, p. 465).

[2] Ibid.

Sotheby's would like to thank Dr. Ann Dumas, Curator, Royal Academy of Arts, for writing the catalogue essay for this lot.

Sotheby's would also like to thank Prof. Theodore Reff for his assistance with the cataloguing of this lot.