The private moments of introspection experienced by a woman at her toilette have long captured the attention of the painterly eye. Intent on observing the curation of female beauty from its genesis at the dressing table, the artist has been no stranger to the boudoir since the playful scintillation of the Rococo. For Degas, however, the intimate subject of le bain precedes this drama of decoration.
The artist’s rendering of bathers is a universal ode to the female form without accoutrement, a portrayal made all the more tender by the complete disregard of his subjects for the gaze in which they are held. Degas’ bather is neither odalisque nor nude; rather she is a figure with agency, absorbed entirely in the familiar task of drying herself. Gracefully extending the left arm to reach the side of her chest, the artist reveals the gentle torsion of her back and shoulders through areas of subtle cross-hatching, while the natural contours of the female body are alternatively highlighted and muted by soft shading.
This work appears to be a study for several later works executed mainly in pastel, such as La Sortie du bain, circa 1895, in which the background furnishings are further developed. In the present work, the deliberate focus on the bather, compared with the less worked outlines of her environment, bring to light the artist’s primary concern with the form and movement of the female body. The ability to distil the essence of a subject through the simple consideration of line, light and shade, is captured evocatively.
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