A striking example of the artist’s fascination with the female nude twisting her body in the process of drying after a bath, Après le bain, femme s’essuyant
is a remarkable pastel on one of Degas’ favourite themes. Never tiring of returning to the same subject, the artist explored the female body in a variety of poses and angles, exploring the nuances of movement and form. The wide range of rich, vibrant tones and the beautifully balanced and proportioned treatment of the woman’s body rank this among one of the most accomplished examples from his celebrated series of bathers (figs. 1 & 2). As in his portrayals of ballet dancers, Degas preferred to capture his models in a private moment, when they appear fully absorbed in their activity, completely unaware of being observed. The sense of privacy is amplified by the artist's preferred viewpoint, depicting his subject from the back, her head gently turned towards the viewer and only partially visible.
Unlike Degas’ 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. He also developed an interest in photography, choosing subjects similar to those he explored in his oils and pastels (fig. 3). Although it was executed in the studio, Après le bain, femme s’essuyant
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’ (quoted in R. Gordon & A. Forge, op. cit
., 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 her upper body subtly leaning to the right as she dries herself with a towel.
Unlike most of his later pastels in which Degas focuses almost entirely on the model, in the present work he broadens the scope of the composition by depicting the woman’s surroundings. Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge wrote about Degas’ arrangements for these compositions: ‘The studio furniture that made Degas’s imaginary bedrooms was simple: a round bath and a long one, an armchair or two, a settee, a screen. Fabrics, heavy curtains played an important part’ (R. Gordon & A. Forge, op. cit
., p. 259). The long bath, featuring in the present work, provided a dynamic element in several depictions of bathers. ‘It is deep and hollow like an architectural niche on its back. […] There is a moving exchange between the simple opening of the bath and the vigorous form of the naked woman’ (ibid
., pp. 259-260). In the present composition, the oval shape of the bath, disappearing behind a colourful screen, beautifully echoes the curve of the woman’s body. The lower half of her figure is partially hidden by the towel she is holding, which is in turn echoed by the robe casually thrown over the sofa in the background.
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, curtain, screen, floor, robe and towel into a continuous decorative pattern. Whilst the contours of the woman’s body, the armchair and the bath tub are clearly delineated, the rest of the composition is coloured in spontaneous strokes of bright pigment. The background is depicted with a degree of abstraction, with accentuated horizontal and vertical lines which provide a contrast to the curving line of the woman and the bath. Such highly decorative treatment of the background, and the intimate character of the composition were highly influential to the avant-garde painters over the following decades, particularly the intimiste
interiors of Pierre Bonnard (fig. 4). Après le bain, femme s’essuyant
remained in the artist’s collection until his death in 1917, and was included in the first of four auctions of the contents of Degas’ studio, held in Paris the following year. Afterwards, it has remained in the possession of a French family for many decades; it was acquired by Roger G. Gompel, a renowned collector of Impressionist Art in France at the beginning of the twentieth century. He was the director of the Paris-France Society, the company that owned several department stores including Les Trois Quartiers
and Aux Dames de France
. Gompel notably collected works by Degas and several major pastels from his collection are now located in some of the most prestigious museums such as The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago. This work has remained in Gompel’s family until now.