Edgar Degas is widely considered to be the greatest proponent of pastel of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; no other artist created images possessing so much vibrancy, subtlety or profundity with the medium, and this exceptional works epitomizes his brilliance. In Femme nue assise, s'essuyant les cheveux Degas explores the human form in one of his favorite ways—a female figure after her bath—using pastel to elevate the humility of the bather’s situation to a sublime exposition of grace and beauty.

Left: Fig. 1 Edgar Degas, Danseuses bleues, pastel on paper, 1897, Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Right: Fig. 2 Edgar Degas, After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself, pastel on paper, circa 1890-95, The National Gallery, London

Edgar Degas was fascinated by the female figure and explored its wide variety of poses and movement throughout his life. He was especially interested in the nuances and fluidity of movement that he observed in figures such as dancers, riders and female nudes at their toilette (see figs. 1 & 2). Degas most beautifully captured the female nude in his preferred medium of pastel with which he produced some of his most accomplished and celebrated works. Femme nue assise, s'essuyant les cheveux is a striking example of the artist’s exploration of this theme and medium.

Degas’s approach to depicting nudes and bathers was radically unconventional. Rather than observing the subject in natural surroundings, as he did for his depictions of riders and dancers, the bathers were usually staged in his studio (see fig. 3). Although these works were executed in a studio environment, Femme nue assise, s'essuyant les cheveux recreates the spontaneity of the act and the voyeuristic experience of watching a woman at her toilette. As in the artist’s portrayals of ballet dancers, he preferred to capture his models in a private moment when they appear fully absorbed in their activity and unaware of being observed. The sense of privacy and intimacy is amplified by the artist’s preferred viewpoint, depicting his subjects from the back and their faces turned away from the viewer.

Fig. 3 Edgar Degas, Nu s’essuyant, gelatine silver photograph, circa 1895-96, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The sense of capturing an intimate moment in time was mirrored in the technological advancements in photography in the late nineteenth century. In the same way that a camera could discover and capture the movement of a figure, Degas’s pastels allowed him to capture the human form in mid-movement. Georges Jeanniot witnessed Degas working on his pastels and commented on 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 shoulder blades 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). As with the ballet, the amount of work and tension which the models’ bodies must have held to achieve a seemingly effortless pose is invisible to the viewer which only sees the gracefulness of the body in mid-motion as in both the present work and Femme s'essuyant les cheveux (see fig. 3).

Fig. 3 Edgar Degas, Femme s'essuyant les cheveux, pastel on paper mounted on board, circa 1888-90, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The extraordinary energy and modern quality of the present work are derived from the abstracted treatment of the surface and the spontaneous strokes of pigment. The background is rendered in loose and free brushstrokes; especially the green and blue pastel show a near-abstract depiction to suggest the studio background. This dynamic and animated application provides a contrast to the soft rendition of the female figure. The curving back of the female figure is clearly delineated and is fully rendered with dense hatching lines that enhance the sense of movement and motion. In addition, the soft application of pastel accentuates the figure’s femininity. The versatility of the pastel crayon meant that Degas could both draw and paint with immediate effect; producing dense opaque areas of raw color whilst simultaneously paraphrasing others with no detrimental effect upon the overall composition. He could capture fleeting moments of light upon flesh and cloth with an assuredness unmatched by oil or watercolor. By applying the color in a variety of ways—swift strokes, stippling spots and dashes, smudging and scraping—Femme nue assise, s'essuyant les cheveux possesses an incomparably nuanced and rich surface expressive of his uniquely sensitive vision. The use of medium reflects the artist’s intention of providing the viewer with a brief view into a private world where they are privy to a fleeting moment.