Ernest Chausson, Paris
Mme Ernest Chausson, Paris (by descent from the above. Sold: Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 5th June 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 13th March 1945; until at least 1965)
Sale: Christie's, New York, 31st October 1978, lot 10
A. Alfred Taubman (purchased at the above sale)
New York, Durand-Ruel Gallery, Pastels by Degas, 1943, no. 4
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia (on loan 1964-65)
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Degas, 1988-89, no. 284, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Les Beaux Arts, Paris, June-September 1935, illustrated p. 21
Paul-André Lemoisne, Degas et son œuvre, Paris, 1946, vol. III, no. 849, illustrated p. 491 (as dating from circa 1885 and with incorrect measurements)
Robert Gordon & Andrew Forge, Degas, New York, 1988, illustrated in colour p. 266
Degas found in pastel an ideal medium, a perfect fusion of colour 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 colour 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. 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 characterised 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 Femme nue, de dos, se coiffant.
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 of circa 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 of 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.
Femme nue, de dos, se coiffant 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 of circa 1884-86 (State Hermitage Museum, Saint 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. 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 Museum’s Nue se coiffant of circa 1888-90 (fig. 2) 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 colour in the present work 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 colour and line reconciles Degas’s enthusiasm for his two great idols, the foremost French painters of the preceding generation, Eugène Delacroix, the exponent of rich, expressive colour and Jean-Dominique Ingres, the master of pure line. And in this pastel’s stasis and classicising calm, there is surely more than an echo of Ingres’s famous Valpinçon Bather of 1808 (fig. 3) a painting Degas had copied in his youth.
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