During the final two decades of his working life, Degas markedly shifted the course of his art. He abandoned many of the quintessential motifs of his Impressionist years, such as the café-concert, the milliner's shop, and the race track, and concentrated almost exclusively on the themes of the dancer and the woman at her toilette. The present work is one of more than two hundred pastels of female bathers that Degas made during this period, an average of at least one major work on the subject each month. The composition of these late works is radically simplified, with all narrative structure stripped away. Degas's exploration of color and texture also became ever bolder and more experimental at this time, as the densely worked, brilliantly colored, and wholly non-representational background of the present pastel demonstrates. Berthe Morisot described Degas's late work as "more and more extraordinary," while Renoir remarked to the dealer Ambroise Vollard, "If Degas had died at fifty, 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., Art Institute of Chicago, 1996, p. 10).
The present pastel is the most highly finished of a series of preparatory studies that Degas made for one of the largest pastels of his career, Le petit déjeuner à la sortie du bain (Lemoisne, no. 724; fig. 1), which depicts a nude woman drying her neck after her bath and a clothed maidservant entering the room with a cup of tea. The present composition shows the bather cropped at the knees against a vividly colored, abstract ground. A second, more lightly worked pastel depicts the bather full-length and leaning against a tub (Lemoisne, no. 727; private collection). There also exist four charcoal drawings of the bather (Vente, nos. I.316, II.280, III.294, IV.179; private collections), as well as two studies for the maid, one nude (Lemoisne, no. 725; private collection) and the other clothed (Vente, no. III.295; private collection). Degas joined the figures of the bather and the maid to create the larger composition, choosing tracing paper as the support to facilitate the transfer. Dissatisfied with the equilibrium of the composition, he then added a strip of tracing paper at the bottom of the work, altering the position of the bather within the pictorial space.
Although Le petit déjeuner à la sortie du bain is dated to 1883 in the stock books of Durand-Ruel, a dating that Lemoisne followed in his catalogue raisonné, both that work and the associated studies almost certainly were made instead at least a decade later. Jean Sutherland Boggs has suggested that the incorrect dating in Durand-Ruel's records may have resulted from the resemblance that the work bears to an earlier pastel of a bather that also formed part of the dealer's stock (Lemoisne, no. 717; private collection). However, she has explained, "Instead of the thin application of paint that reveals the delicacy of the charcoal drawing in the earlier work, Degas has drawn, painted, and rubbed on so many irregular layers of pastel that here there is a rich, unbroken web of color. In spite of the presence of the green-and-yellow upholstered chaise that also appears frequently in Degas's pastels of nudes in the previous decade, The Breakfast after the Bath clearly belongs to the 1890s" (in Degas, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988, p. 521).
The present pastel represents one of the most distinctive subjects of Degas's late years: the nude woman with upraised arms, drying her neck in the moments after her bath. Characteristically, the model is seen from behind, her back turned to establish her privacy and her face averted. She holds out her heavy and luxurious hair with her left arm and vigorously towels her neck with her right, arching her back slightly and leaning forward as she concentrates on her toilette. The principal advantage of this stance was that it afforded Degas the opportunity to focus on the female back, an aspect of human architecture that fascinated him. He first experimented with the pose around 1875 in an oil painting that depicts three women combing their long tresses (Lemoisne, no. 376; Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.). He returned to it intermittently from the mid-1880s through the end of his career, using it initially for scenes of women arranging their hair (fig. 2) and then, as in the present work, for images of bathers drying their neck (fig. 3). He experimented with a range of alternative positions for the woman's left arm and also explored the mirror-image of the scene, with the model facing right rather than left (fig. 4). Richard Kendall has called the long series of works on this theme "one of the largest and most inventively varied of Degas's late years" (in exh. cat., op. cit., Chicago, 1996, p. 149), explaining:
"In dozens of charcoal drawings, pastels, and even sculptures [Rewald, no. L], this angular averted figure towers over his pictorial repertory. Leaning forward to attend to her hair and dry her neck, the woman twists her back so that the side of her thighs and the breadth of her shoulders are simultaneously visible. The curiously flattened shape that resulted clearly fascinated the artist, offering an oblique structure that energized a number of major compositions So enthralled did Degas become that he restated the image in half-a-dozen contexts, from the light-filled bedroom of After the bath, woman drying her hair [Lemoisne, no. 1424; private collection] to the claustrophobic Woman at her toilette [Lemoisne, no. 1426; Art Institute of Chicago], versions with tubs and those with attendant maids, even an extraordinary rendering set against rocks and pine-trees [Lemoisne, no. 1422; private collection]. For proof of Degas's later preoccupation with the expressiveness of the figure, and his relative indifference to its setting, we need look no further" (ibid., p. 149).
With its rich array of sources within the history of art, the pose of the present pastel is also noteworthy as evidence for Degas's renewed historicism in his later years. The motif of the model with her back turned to the viewer is heavily indebted to Ingres's Valpinçon Bather of 1808 (Musée du Louvre, Paris), a painting that Degas copied in the 1860s and venerated throughout his life. The figure clutching her hair while leaning to the side has also been linked to Ingres's rival, Delacroix, specifically to the figure of the grieving female captive in the foreground of Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople of 1840 (Musée du Louvre, Paris), another painting that Degas had copied in his youth. A similar action can be found as well in the eastern tradition, in Japanese woodblock prints such as Utamaro's Woman Combing Her Hair, circa 1802-1803 (British Museum, London). Kendall has commented, "Aware of all these precedents, Degas transposed and absorbed them into his own idiom. These allusions range from acts of homage to moments of sly comedy, recalling the antiquarianism of Degas's youth, even as they baffled those critics who could find a 'kneeling Venus' and a 'streetwalker's flesh' in the same pastel study" (ibid., p. 149).
Degas's images of a bather drying her neck also represent a stellar example of the distinctive shift in his working practice in later life toward the sequence or series. Kendall has written, "There is no precedent for the pervasiveness of Degas's later serial practice, which accounted in his last decades for the overwhelming majority of his pictures By the turn of the century, the majority of his drawings, pastels, and even sculptures were linked through tracing, replication, and a shared dynamism" (ibid., pp. 186, 188). Using tracing paper as a support, Degas was able to propagate sequences of almost identical compositions; eyewitnesses describe half a dozen variants of the same scene arranged on easels in Degas's studio, allowing the artist to explore alternative nuances of composition or harmonies of color. Pauline, a model who often posed for Degas, recalled his continual search for aesthetic resolution: "He painted his subject with different tones, endlessly varying the colors until one of the pastels pleased enough for it to be completed" (quoted in ibid., p. 103). Likewise, Degas himself described a picture to Paul Valéry as "a series of operations" and instructed his young admirer Bartholomé, "It is essential to do the same subject over again, ten times, a hundred times" (quoted in ibid., p. 186).
(fig. 1) Edgar Degas, Le petit déjeuner à la sortie du bain, circa 1895. Private collection. BARCODE 24409155
(fig. 2) Edgar Degas, Femme nude, de dos, se coiffant, circa 1888-1890. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. BARCODE 24409278
(fig. 3) Edgar Degas, Femme s'essuyant le cou, circa 1895. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. BARCODE 24409261
(fig. 4) Edgar Degas, Femme s'essuyant, circa 1905-1910. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. BARCODE 24409254