Unlike his depictions of the ballet and the races, the bather scenes were usually staged in the artist’s studio since he could not otherwise observe this intimate ritual. Nevertheless, Après le bain recreates the spontaneity of the act and the voyeuristic experience of watching a woman at her toilette. Georges Jeanniot, who had witnessed Degas at work on his pastels, reminisced about his technique: “Degas was very concerned with the accuracy of movements and postures. He studied them endlessly. I have seen him work with a model, trying to make her assume the gestures of a woman drying herself…. You see the two shoulderblades from behind; but the right shoulder, squeezed by the weight of the body, assumes an unexpected outline that suggests a kind of acrobatic gesture, a violent effort” (quoted in R. Gordon & A. Forge, Degas, New York, 1988, p. 223). Indeed, the artist often applied his knowledge of the female body, attained through observing dancers, on his images of bathers, and in the present work he depicted his model with an almost balletic twist of her upper body.
The extraordinary energy and modern quality of the present work are derived from the highly abstracted treatment of the surface, blending the fabric of the wall-paper, curtains, robes and towels into a continuous decorative pattern. In his pastels of the 1890s and early 1900s, Degas' focus moved away from the linear, towards a new interest in a bright palette, and the present work is a magnificent example of his new found freedom of expression, allowing the artist to transform an everyday scene into a firework of strong, bright colors. Writing about the coloration of the present work, Jean Sutherland Boggs and Anne Maheux stated: “The high-key colors that Degas has chosen for the patterned background virtually reverberate on the sheet. A brilliant orange unites the composition, traveling through each element in an array of strokes: applied in broad background swirls, thickly scrawled over the chaise longue in the foreground and laid down in parallel hatchings over the warm green shadows of the bather’s figure. And finally, short thin strokes of golden yellow bounce off the wall in a pyrotechnic performance, uniting dazzling colour and the calligraphic strokes of pastel” (J. Sutherland Boggs & A. Maheux, Op. cit., p. 166).
For all their daring modernity and the often shocking effects they had on their contemporary nineteenth-century audience, Degas’ images of bathers were greatly admired at the time. The early critic J. K. Huysmans discussed the series of bather pastels: “What we may see in these works is the unforgettable veracity of these types, captured with a deep-seated and ample draughtsmanship, with a lucid and controlled passion, as though with a cold fever; what is to be seen is the ardent and subtle coloring, the mysterious and opulent tone of these scenes; the supreme beauty of this flesh tinted pink or blue by water, illuminated by windows hung with gauze in dim rooms” (quoted in ibid., p. 231).
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