Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
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Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

Femme assise, se coiffant

Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Femme assise, se coiffant
stamped with the signature 'Degas' (Lugt 658; lower right)
charcoal and pastel on joined buff paper, laid down on board
27 1/2 x 21 in. (70 x 53.5 cm.)
Executed circa 1887-1890
The artist's estate; Second sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 11-13 December 1918, lot 107.
Henri Fèvre, Monte Carlo; sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 22 June 1925, lot 53.
Baron Marczell von Nemès, Budapest & Munich; his sale, Mensing & Sohn, Cassirer, Helbing, Munich, 15 June 1931, lot 98.
Mrs Irving Snyder, Coronado, by 1958.
Dalzell Hatfield Gallery, Los Angeles; sale, Sotheby's, London, 25 June 1985, lot 11.
Anonymous sale, Christie's, London, 28 November 1995, lot 18.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
P.-A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, vol. III, 1883-1908, Paris, 1946, no. 931, p. 542 (illustrated p. 543).
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, An Exhibition of Works by Edgar Hilaire Germain Degas, 1834-1917, March 1958, no. 52, p. 54.
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Keith Gill
Keith Gill

Lot Essay

‘Degas had another comprehension of life, a different concern for exactitude before nature. There is certainly a woman there, but a certain kind of woman, without the expression of a face, without the wink of an eye, without the décor of the toilette, a woman reduced to the gesticulation of her limbs, to the appearance of her body, a woman considered as a female…’
Gustave Geffroy
(368 Met exh cat)

With a harmony of soft pinks, corals and delicate, near iridescent peach tones applied with myriad vigorous strokes of pastel, Femme assise, se coiffant was executed circa 1887-1890, in the final, immensely prolific phase of Edgar Degas’ career. Depicting a nude figure immersed in the intimate, ritualistic act of combing her hair, this exquisite pastel is one of the great series of bathers that have come to define this late period of Degas’ art. Over the last two decades of Degas’ career, the nude bather pictured in her toilette became an artistic obsession, with the figure appearing in an array of different poses, pictured bathing, drying, dressing, or, as in the present work, combing her hair, throughout his late work. It was the motif of coiffure that, as the present work illustrates, inspired some of the finest works of this large series, providing the artist with a range of natural and unposed, yet dynamic and complex poses which he could study and then depict. With the female figure wholly absorbed in this quiet, reflective daily act, Femme assise, se coiffant radiates a sense of calm tranquillity and closed intimacy. Fusing a chromatic brilliance with a carefully structured and cropped composition, it illustrates Degas’s unsurpassed aptitude for pastel, the defining medium of his late period, which many consider to be among the most impressive, experimental and expressive of his career. Colour, form and line come together, uniting subject, setting and pose into a symbiotic harmony.

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’ (Degas, quoted in R. Kendall, ed., Degas by Himself, Boston, 1987, p. 319). As Femme assise, se coiffant demonstrates, Degas has conveyed an intensity of colour without sacrificing any of the compositional structure of the work. The serpentine, sensuous lines of the model’s body, her crossed legs, elongated torso, tilted head, and raised, outstretched arms are carefully outlined in black, these contours serving to distinguish the delicate flesh tones of her body from the similarly pink hued setting. Degas has achieved this remarkable harmony of soft, yet radiant pink tones through his deft handling of pastel. On top of gently blended areas of colour, the artist has overlaid intense, vertical lines, which serve to accentuate the physical form of the nude figure herself, as well as to unify the composition as a whole. Together with these forceful, directional strokes, Degas has also applied the pastel with frenzied, rapid marks, that explode from the coral-toned background, seen particularly on the left-hand side of the composition. Against the bright pink background, these vigorous, radiant white lines demonstrate Degas’ extraordinary ability at blending and layering pastel to create works that seem literally to dazzle with rich colour, form, texture and depth. Critics applauded this experimental synthesis of line and colour that characterises Degas’s late work; as Waldemar George wrote, ‘His tones – false, strident, clashing, breaking into shimmering fanfares…without any concern for truth, plausibility or credibility’ (W. George, quoted in J. Sutherland Boggs, Degas, exh. cat., New York, 1989, p. 482).

A subject rich with art historical precedents, the image of the bather, and more specifically, a woman combing her hair, had appeared in the work of artists from Titian to Ingres, the latter for which Degas held a great adoration. The theme of the woman arranging her hair has a long and distinguished history in Western art, dating back to a lost masterpiece by the Classical Greek painter, Apelles that depicts the iconic motif of the goddess Aphrodite rising from the sea and wringing out her long flowing hair. Throughout the history of art, the flowing, loose and extravagant cascade of hair and the intimate feminine ritual of combing it through was imbued with distinctly sensual and erotic overtones. Yet, for Degas, this pose offered not an opportunity to portray a staged form of feminine eroticism, but rather the chance to immerse himself in 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. Tightly cropping these domestic scenes, Degas brought this classical motif firmly into his own time, expunging any specific references, literary or mythological associations, to create a thoroughly modern conception of this traditional subject; a snapshot of a woman at ease, immersed in the private sanctuary of her home, lost in her own thoughts. ‘He has no goddesses to offer’, the critic Théodore Duret wrote, ‘none of the legendary heroines of tradition, but woman as she is, occupied with her ordinary habits of life or of the toilette…’ (T. Duret, quoted in R. Kendall, op. cit., p. 150).

Femme assise, se coiffant remained in the Degas’ collection until after his death in 1917. The following year it was included in the sale of the artist’s property at the Galerie Georges Petit, where it was bought by Henri Fèvre, the artist’s nephew. After this, the work was acquired by the legendary Hungarian dealer and collector, Baron Marczell von Nemès, who had amassed an extraordinary collection including work by Goya, Rembrandt and Titian.

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