Degas' last creative period, covering the 1890s and continuing until about 1910, is considered by many scholars his most accomplished and successful. His lifetime experimentation, constanly fuelled by an endeavour of self-perfection, found in the 1890s the most felicitous expressions through the unsurpassed mastery of one medium above all - pastel.
The few subjects obsessively reprised throughout his oeuvre, in the strenously disciplined research of a life-time, were then limited to two preferred themes, dancers and bathers. The depiction of models caught during their most intimate toilettes was dictated to the artist by a personal tragedy: his declining eye-sight anchored him to his studio, and the interior sets he had devised for the observation of the models.
In a departure from the more academic use of models by his contemporaries, Degas loathed graceful poses, favouring the less premeditated observation of the women engaged in mundane ablutions and very private moments of their personal care. He was fascinated, first and foremost, by their movements, their rythmic gestures, the suddenly and unexpectedly overt sensuality of an open shoulder or a slowly moving arm. He found what he was looking for by inviting poor women to indulge in ablutions of all kinds, in the coziness of his atelier - an invitation the models welcomed immediately, at a time when a bath was a rare luxury in many neighbourhoods of Paris. He would ask them to undress casually and leisurely, to bathe, to free and comb their manes, to dry themselves with towels, and finally, in extremely sensual depictions, to wear their stockings and lingerie before dressing. Of course, his final compositions were carefully devised and crafted 'as spontaneous', but his inspiration came from the daily study of the models roaming freely in his atelier.
In the present pastel, the model is portrayed in the most banal, almost vulgar of poses: she is captured whilst washing her armpit. Her naked body is not idealised nor polished, yet Degas ennobles the pose by lending her arched arm a pure tension, by building her movement around a classical chiasmos - the harmonious opposition of her stretched and bent arms, brought together by the firm torsion of her bust, wrapped in a white towel.
Four contemporary works explore the same pose, seen from different viewpoints, as if Degas was exploring the motif with a camera, carefully filming the model whilst turning around her. First the woman is turned towards the right, almost frontally, in the pastels Femme s'épongeant la poitrine (L. 1124) and Femme à sa toilette (L. 1125); then the artist looked at her from the left, in the monotype Femme à sa toilette (L. 1124 bis); finally, in the present work, he chose a vertical format for a more finished and accomplished portrayal of her body seen from the left.
The delicacy of the pastelwork in Femme à sa toilette is outstanding. Degas brought to perfection all the different and most complex ways he experimented in this medium: the woman's body is traced with precise, attentive, close strokes, which give way to more nervous, hatched lines in the treatment of the white towel in the foreground; the layers of pigment become more textured, sinuous, mosaic-like on the shelf supporting the basin; the pastel is more compact, dense, almost painterly in the definition of the wall and the background. Finally, a series of perfectly mastered lines of charcoal - wise, firm, without pentimenti nor shame - draw her full body, the curves of her breasts and sensual belly.
This pastel allows also a precious insight into Degas' radical use of colour. The contrast of the general golden, hot tones, with the central cold hues of the blue basin, jug and the perfume-holders on the shelf echoes Degas' contemporary pastel tour de force, such as Après le bain (L. 1011, Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London) and Femme s'essuyant (L. 955, National Gallery of Art, London), sharing the same complexity and exquisite freshness of the present work.