Within a brilliantly multihued composition of warm ochre, blazing coral, deep cobalt blue and sweeps of iridescent turquoise, a nude woman is pictured in a state of complete self-absorption, as she rests on the side of a bath, bending over to dry her legs and feet. Executed circa 1893, in the final phase of Edgar Degas’ career, Après le bain, femme s’essuyant la jambe (le peignoir rouge) is a vivid example of one of the artist’s most prominent themes: the nude bather. In the last two decades of Degas’ career, the nude bather became an artistic obsession, appearing in numerous poses throughout his late work. Fusing a chromatic brilliance with a carefully structured and cropped composition, the present work illustrates Degas’ unsurpassed aptitude for pastel, the defining medium of his revered late period. As Pierre-Auguste Renoir declared to his 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 broadened out and that he really becomes Degas’ (Renoir, quoted in R. Kendall, Degas: Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., London, 1996, p. 10).
In 1890, Degas rented a large studio on the rue Victor Massé, situated on the outskirts of Montmartre. His move here marked his retreat from the Parisian art world, and he increasingly took a more introverted approach to his choice of subject matter, leaving behind the themes of urban modernity, such as horse races, the café-concert, and the milliner’s shop and instead seeking his pictorial inspiration from within the studio itself. Degas’ studio was filled with a plethora of artistic materials, as well as furniture, props and draperies; as one visitor recalled, the studio was filled with, ‘double-basses, violins, baths, tubs, dancers’ skirts and shoes, a life-case of a woman, a conductor’s podium, a piano, even a spiral staircase from a theatre’ (P. Lafond, quoted in R. Kendall, ibid.,1996, p. 27). Using these objects, Degas could transform his studio into a woman’s toilette, replete with a colourful assortment of patterned fabrics, or a dancer’s rehearsal room filled with diaphanous tutus, conjuring stage-like scenes at his will. One of Degas’ models of the time recalled of the artist’s studio, ‘Although vast, [the studio] was gloomy, because the high north-facing windows which occupied a whole wall were almost obstructed by a linen curtain, falling very low; only a dim daylight filtered in, hardly reaching the end of the studio. This feeble light was interrupted everywhere by cupboards, numerous easels jumbled together, sculpture stands, tables, armchairs, stools, several screens and even a bathtub used for posing models as bathers’ (A. Michel, quoted in ibid., p. 26). Into this inner sanctum, Degas invited models to pose nude for him, asking them to undertake a range of activities. The artist revelled in the dynamic poses of the female form; capturing the body in movement and translating it into closely cropped compositions, as exemplified by the reaching pose of the woman in Après le bain, femme s’essuyant la jambe (le peignoir rouge).
The female bather had absorbed Degas prior to the late phase of his career. Throughout the 1880s, Degas had used pastel to depict the nude woman engrossed in various acts of ablution: as the artist himself described, ‘bathing themselves, washing themselves, drying themselves, towelling themselves, combing their hair or having it combed’ (Degas, quoted in ibid., p. 141), and he would go on to exhibit a number of these works in the Eighth and final Impressionist exhibition of 1886. However, for the last two decades of his career, from around 1890 onwards, the bather, along with the ballet dancer, dominated Degas’ oeuvre, serving as the site for his greatest artistic experimentations and explorations into line, colour and medium. The artist increasingly dispensed with specificity and detail, and instead became preoccupied with the expressive potential of line and colour that could be attained with the medium of pastel.
With pastel, Degas was able to fuse the expressiveness and sensuality of colour with the precision and vigour of line: as the artist emphatically declared, ‘I am a colourist with line’ (quoted in R. Kendall, ed., Degas by Himself, Boston, 1987, p. 319). As Après le bain, femme s’essuyant la jambe (le peignoir rouge) demonstrates, Degas has conveyed an intensity of colour without sacrificing any of the compositional structure of the work. The model’s right arm is carefully outlined, emphasising the serpentine curve of her outstretched extremity, while the undulating curve of her bent back is echoed in the flowing drapery behind her. With overlapping strokes, lines, dabs and smudges of pigment, Degas has incorporated subtle highlights of colour and nuances of tone into the scene, such as the violet strokes on the model’s skin, and the pale, iridescent blue of her towel. Critics applauded the synthesis of line and colour that characterises Degas’ late work, such as Après le bain, femme s’essuyant la jambe (le peignoir rouge). Waldemar George noted the artist’s bold, increasingly abstract use of colour at a retrospective exhibition, ‘His tones – false, strident, clashing, breaking into shimmering fanfares…without any concern for truth, plausibility or credibility’ (quoted in J. Sutherland Boggs, Degas, exh. cat., New York, 1989, p. 482). While Octave Mirbeau wrote of the abstract effects of Degas’ compositions, ‘there is wonderful power of synthesis and abstract line in them such as no other artist of our time I know of can produce’ (quoted in ibid., p. 368).
In the present work, Degas has cropped the scene, cutting out any particular references, such as clothing or locational detail, that could define the woman’s identity or class. Specific narrative or anecdotal detail is dispensed with and replaced by a concern with the expressive potential of colour, line and form. The closely cropped composition creates a sense of enforced intimacy as the viewer watches the woman carry out a personal act within a private, seemingly secluded space. In contrast to Degas’ depictions of dancers who are engaged in a public spectacle, his scenes of bathers present women engaged in an intensely personal ritual. The identity of the woman in Après le bain, femme s’essuyant la jambe (le peignoir rouge) is unknown, her facial features rendered without detail so that there is no way to ascertain her expression; whether she feels disturbed by the intrusion or unaware of the viewer’s close, voyeuristic viewpoint.
A subject rich with a multitude of art historical precedents, the bather had appeared in the work of artists such as Rembrandt, Rubens and Ingres, the latter for which Degas held a great adoration. With a keen interest in the art of the past, Degas, as well as Renoir and Cézanne, turned to the subject of the bather. However, it was Degas who placed the female bather firmly in his own time, creating a thoroughly modern conception of this traditional subject. Freed from literary or mythological associations, and separated from societal context, the nude bathers in Degas’ work presented as a radically revised view of the female body. The art critic Théodore Duret wrote that Degas ‘[had] found new situations for the nude, in interiors, among rich fabrics and cushioned furniture. He has no goddesses to offer, none of the legendary heroines of tradition, but woman as she is, occupied with her ordinary habits of life or of the toilette…’ (quoted in R. Kendall, op. cit., p. 150). The artist captured, with a rapt fascination, the natural poses and self-absorbed gestures of the bathing models, conveying them in compositions that abound with resplendent contrasts of colour, texture, line and form; as he stated, ‘Until now the nude has always been presented in poses which assume the presence of an audience, but these women of mine are decent simple human beings who have no other concern than that of their physical condition… It is as though one were watching through the keyhole’ (Degas, quoted in G. Adriani, Degas: pastels, Oil Sketches, Drawings, London, 1985, p. 86).