During the last two, immensely creative decades of his life, Degas increasingly dispensed with his early penchant for anecdotal specificity and became preoccupied with the purely expressive potential of the female body in vigorous motion. He sharply limited his repertoire of subjects to the dancer and the bather–the former representing a public spectacle governed by the august traditions and rigorous discipline of a great art form, the latter reflecting instead Degas’s experience of a most private moment, in which the nude model’s chaste self-absorption exists in palpable tension with a deep undercurrent of sexuality. Creating his most fully realized and definitive pictorial statements in pastel rather than oil, Degas paired a concise, boldly exploratory line with voluptuous, semi-abstract skeins of color that amplify the robust physicality and bodily tension of his figures as they bend, twist, and stretch through space.
“Fusing tradition with violent innovation, Degas seized upon pastel as the ultimate medium of his maturity,” Richard Kendall has written, “using the patient tracings of his draftsmanship as a springboard to the ‘orgies of color’ [the artist’s own words] of his final decades” (Degas: Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, 1996, p. 89).
The focal point of the present pastel is a nude woman caught in a private moment after her bath, as she stoops to dry her right ankle with a towel. Her body folds in on itself, the breasts and stomach pressed against the thigh. The emphasis of the pose is the sensuous expanse of the back, curving through the buttocks to meet the fullness of the haunch, which Degas has accentuated by adopting a slightly elevated vantage point. Cool light enters the scene from the left and spills over the figure’s warm flesh in calligraphic, vibrating strokes of silvery-blue pastel, an abstract analogue for the energy that she exerts in drying herself. Although the model appears wholly absorbed in her intimate toilette, she nonetheless turns her face toward the viewer rather than averting it like so many of Degas’s bathers, thereby heightening the voyeuristic frisson of the scene.
The bather’s obliquely positioned figure, exquisitely delicate in hue, constitutes the dynamic center of the composition, which Degas has surrounded with a contrasting tapestry of vivid color–the most virtuoso and arresting element in this boldly experimental pastel. A baseboard molding at the left side of the image and the zinc soaking tub that projects forward at the right together define the shallow space. The bather herself stands on a white towel amidst pools of blue shadow, and her figure is protectively encircled at the rear by a plush brown armchair. Everywhere else, Degas has filled the scene with cascades of fabric–towels or robes, ostensibly, in rose and lilac, cobalt and gold–that tumble toward the floor in luxurious, enveloping folds. As well as heightening the sense of intimate enclosure, this extraordinary unfurling of color asserts, in a forcefully modern way, the flatness and decorative unity of the pastel support.
“These works are insistently tactile, their hatchings of color and bright ribbons of chalk threatening to dominate the picture surface and almost justifying talk of ‘abstraction’,” Kendall has written about Degas’s late achievement in pastel. “More accurately, this graphic energy reminds us of the synthetic nature of Degas’s imagery, directing our attention to the fictive planes of his works of art and constraining their propensity to illusion” (ibid., p. 154).
Degas had first explored the motif of the bather doubled over, her torso lowered to her thighs, in a group of pastels dated to the mid-1880s, when his aesthetic interests were very different. More naturalistic in setting and restrained in handling, these earlier works focus on the frankness of the pose, with its deliberate affront to accepted artistic canons of physical grace. In 1886, at the eighth and final Impressionist show, Degas exhibited one of them as part of a suite of six pastels depicting bathers at various moments in their ablutions (Lemoisne, no. 816; Metropolitan Museum of Art). It was a daring choice, and even otherwise sympathetic critics expressed shock at the figure’s angular, contorted posture. “Of the nudes that were exhibited,” Gary Tinterow has written, “this one’s pose is perhaps the most awkward and unconventional, which suggests that the work as a whole may have been intended as a deliberately anti-classical–hence modern–statement” (Degas, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988, p. 443).
By the time that Degas returned to this pose in the following decade, his working practice had changed dramatically. In 1890, he moved into a new studio on the fourth floor at 37, rue Victor Massé–a veritable hothouse of creativity, famous among visitors for its indescribable disorder, where he produced all the work of his final two decades. Leaving behind the racetrack, the café-concert, the milliner’s shop, and the boulevard, Degas now conjured the settings for his pictures within the four walls of his studio, using portable furnishings, patterned screens, and colored draperies to transform the space at will. All he needed from outside was the animation of his models–Pauline was a favorite–who came day after day to pose.
At the rue Victor Massé, Degas began to work pervasively in series, submitting particularly expressive motifs to ceaseless repetition and revision, often over a period of years. Using tracing paper as an aid, he explored slight variations of posture, setting, and mise-en-page, as well as different textural nuances and a broad range of color harmonies. He studied the same pose from different angles or reversed it entirely; he cropped his images or expanded them by attaching extra strips of paper. “It is essential to do the same subject over again,” he instructed his protégé Albert Bartholomé, “ten times, a hundred times” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1996, p. 186).
Femme s’essuyant les pieds is part of a magnificently varied suite of four pastels that Degas created around 1893, all of which treat the theme of the bather drying her feet. Two show the figure facing left, as here, and two facing right (Lemoisne, nos. 1136-1139; Christie’s London, 23 June 2015, Lot 16). In the present pastel, Degas has turned the figure slightly further to the front than in the other examples, emphasizing the intersecting angles of her bent arms and legs; he has left more space above the bather as well, allowing him to elaborate the background with greater chromatic extravagance. In the mid-1890s, Degas returned to this distinctive pose in two pastels that also incorporate the figure of a maid (Lemoisne, nos. 1150-1151; Tel Aviv Museum); several spare, simplified charcoal drawings from the opening years of the new century complete the sequence of imagery (Lemoisne, nos. 1380-1384 and 1421).
The present pastel has been in an important private collection since 1998 and had not been seen publicly since that date until this past fall, when it was featured in a landmark retrospective of Degas’s work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, which marked the hundredth anniversary of the artist’s death.
The present pastel has been in an important private collection since 1998 and had not been seen publicly since that date until this past fall, when it was featured in a landmark retrospective of Degas’s work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The renowned Degas scholar Henri Loyrette, former director of the Musée du Louvre in Paris, personally selected the pastel for this extraordinary exhibition, the first in nearly three decades to examine the full scope of the artist’s achievement. “Femme s’essuyant les pieds is a sterling example of Degas’s obsession with attacking a handful of subjects...with repetitive self-discipline in a sustained and endless campaign of bricolage,” wrote Gary Tinterow, Director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and Tony Ellwood, Director of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne who collaborated with Loyrette on this exhibition. “The extraordinarily rich palette and vivid pigments that Degas has used in Femme s’essuyant les pieds…make an invaluable contribution to our exhibition, demonstrating Degas’s importance as a precursor of modernist movements in art such as Fauvism” (personal correspondence).