Nunès & Fiquet Collection, Paris
Sale: Sotheby's, London, 23rd June 1965, lot 142
Galerie Beyeler, Basel (purchased at the above sale)
Henry Schaefer, Zurich (acquired from the above in June 1966; until at least 1995)
Simon Dickinson Ltd., London
Private Collection, USA
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2005
London, Royal Academy of Arts; Tokyo, Sezon Museum of Art & Nagoya, Matsuzakaya Art Museum, From Manet to Gauguin, Masterpieces from Swiss Private Collections, 1995-96, no. 13, illustrated in colour in the catalogue (as dating from 1885-90)
In his pastels of the 1890s, Degas’s focus moved away from the linear towards a new interest in colour, and the present work is a magnificent example of his new found freedom of expression, allowing the artist to transform an everyday scene into vibrant compositions. This sense of spontaneity in execution is also reflected in his technique of adding strips of paper to the edges of the sheet. Degas often employed this practice in his mature works, adapting the size and shape of his support in such a way as to suite the emerging composition. For all their daring modernity and an often shocking effect they had on their contemporary nineteenth-century audience, Degas’ images of bathers were greatly admired at the time. The early critic Joris-Karl 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 colouring, 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 Robert Gordon & Andrew Forge, Degas, London, 1988, p. 231).
Seen from the side, the woman's upper body is twisted towards the viewer, while her head is turned the other way, as if completely unaware of the spectator's gaze. She is captured leaning over a bowl of water in the routine, calm movement of washing herself. In painting his nudes and semi-nudes, whom Degas studied so assiduously in the intimate confines of their boudoirs, the artist was interested in exploring the female body, rather than in representing his sitters as individuals. Degas rarely personified them, and concentrated instead on depicting the human form in a variety of rituals and movements. In his works on the subject of women at their toilette, the artist often depicted them in the process of washing, as in the present work, or drying various parts of their body, which allowed him to explore unusual contortions of the nude.
The present work is one of the more heavily-worked compositions from a group of at least eight pastels from the late 1890s, depicting the same subject (P.-A. Lemoisne, op. cit., nos. 1285-1292). Richard Kendall wrote of this group: ‘Varying only slightly in details of posture and setting […] all these pictures centre on the action of a woman drying or sponging her breast. In each case the model’s face is shadowed or inclined, her identity signaled neither by her surroundings nor the nature of her banal ritual. She might be washing at daybreak or preparing for a lover, displaying her charms or toweling after a day’s work; the point of Degas’s composition, however, is that all these readings are made possible but none is insisted upon. The washbowl and jug are virtually classless, as are the other items appearing in variant renderings, and without a knowing glance or a symbolic accessory, a meaningful picture on the wall or a suggestive human presence, we are once again denied a narrative. Our attention is drawn to the woman herself. And specifically to her rhythmic movement and graphically realized musculature, expressing both the laboriousness and the practicality of her task. […] It is only in the last decade of the century […] that his priorities shifted unmistakably from the documentary to the expressive, embodying the textures of the woman’s skin in his coloured chalks and her dignified mass in its tints and shadows’ (R. Kendall, Degas Beyond Impressionism (exhibition catalogue), London, 1996, pp. 148-149).
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