The present oil was painted in the mid-1880s, a critical moment of transition in Degas's career. Around this time, he markedly shifted the course of his art, abandoning many of the quintessential motifs of his Impressionist years, such as the café-concert and the race track. Concentrating almost exclusively on the themes of the dancer and the woman at her toilette, Degas radically simplified his compositions, stripping away all narrative structure and focusing his attention on a single figure or figural group. At the same time, his exploration of color and texture became ever bolder and more experimental, as the densely worked, brilliantly colored, and wholly non-representational background of the present painting demonstrates. Berthe Morisot described Degas's late work as "more and more extraordinary," while Renoir remarked to Vollard, "If Degas had died at fifty [in 1884], he would have been remembered as an excellent painter, no more. It is after his fiftieth year that his work broadens out and that he really becomes Degas" (quoted in Degas: Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., London, 1996, p. 10). Likewise, Richard Kendall has written:
"Between 1880 and 1890--effectively the middle years of his life--Degas's art underwent a slow, deliberate, and radical transformation. Not just the pictures themselves, but the circumstances in which they were made, the techniques involved in their fabrication, and the means of their dispersal into the wider world were fundamentally recast, along with their relationship to the artist's visual surroundings. Though some of Degas's subjects remained familiar, notably his representations of the ballet and the female toilette, even these took on new meanings and shed those of the past" (ibid., p. 173).
Depicting a young woman fastening her corset, the present painting is closely related in subject matter to Degas's celebrated late images of women bathing and combing their hair. Beginning in the eighteenth century, painters and printmakers had frequently exploited the motif of the corset for its erotic charge. Manet's Nana of 1877, for instance, named for the courtesan in the novels of Émile Zola, reveals its subject in an alluring blue corset, and Degas himself had depicted corset-clad prostitutes in his brothel monotypes from 1876-1877. In the present painting, by contrast, Degas has stripped away the sexual connotations of the corset, depicting a modestly clad woman absorbed in the private daily ritual of dressing. Notably, the corset had become a topic of particular interest among respectable women in the mid-1870s, when the shape of fashionable dresses changed to include a tight bodice that extended downward over the hips. These form-fitting dresses required an elaborate undergarment called the corset-cuirasse, which became an indispensable part of a woman's wardrobe. Between 1880 and 1882, shortly before Degas painted the present oil, Henri de Montaut drew a series of illustrations of corsets for the popular periodical, La Vie Parisienne. As David Kunzle has explained, "Having been always regarded as essentially invisible and utilitarian, corsets became fashion-objects, an artistic cult in their own right" (in "The Corset as Erotic Alchemy: From Rococo Galanterie to Montaut's Physiologies," in The Woman as Sex Object: Studies in Erotic Art, 1730-1970, London, 1973, p. 121).
The original purchase invoice between Mrs. J. Paul Guillaume and Président Emil Roche for the present lot, dated Paris, 11 June 1937. BARCODE 19612737