Le Tub is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and important sculptures of the modern era. ‘It is difficult to exaggerate the brilliance and originality of The Tub,’ Richard Brettell has written (R. Brettell, Degas in the Art Institute of Chicago, New York, 1984, p. 164). ‘This unique work,’ Charles Millard agrees, ‘is among the most original not only of Degas' own pieces but of all nineteenth-century sculpture’ (C. Millard, The Sculpture of Edgar Degas, Princeton, 1976, p. 107). With its bold and unconventional combination of materials, its unflinching physiognomic realism, and its deliberate revision of the traditional syntax of the female body, this arresting sculpture of a young woman washing herself in a shallow basin represents a daring break with academic mores. ‘Although Degas' bather could be seen as a shockingly modern interpretation of Venus in her shell, she is ruthlessly stripped of all such idealising conventions,’ Ann Dumas has written. ‘One can barely imagine the effect of this piece on the visitors to Degas' studio’ (A. Dumas, ‘Sculptor, Painter’, in S. Czestochowski & A. Pingeot, Degas Sculptures: Catalogue Raisonné of the Bronzes, Memphis, 2002, p. 46).
Unlike the majority of Degas' sculptures, Le Tub can be dated with some certainty. It was likely already underway by 1888, when Degas wrote to the sculptor Albert Bartholomé, ‘I have not done enough horses. The women must wait in their basins’ (Degas, quoted in Degas, exh. cat., New York, 1988, p. 469). Degas updated Bartholomé on his progress in June 1889, at which point the sculpture seems to have been near completion: ‘I have worked the little wax a great deal. I have made a base for it with rags soaked in a more or less well-mixed plaster’ (ibid., p. 469).
In its original form, the sculpture features an audacious juxtaposition of different materials, which constituted an overt challenge to the accepted criteria of statuary in the late 19th Century. Degas modeled the figure itself from wax and made the tub from a bent strip of lead-zinc alloy. The bath water is formed from a thin layer of plaster in which the artist drew ripples with a modeling tool or the handle of a brush, and real draperies soaked in plaster (as Degas mentioned to Bartholomé) have been crumpled around the tub like discarded clothing to create an integral base. At once illusory and real, Le Tub anticipates the central role that the objet trouvé would play in 20th Century sculpture, from Picasso onward. ‘Degas' sculpture was crucial to the development of cubist sculptural collages and the surrealists' magical concoctions,’ Dumas has written, ‘and his experiments even touched artists in the later twentieth century, such as Robert Rauschenberg and others who conjure poetry from everyday items’ (A. Dumas, op. cit., 2002, p. 47).
In iconographic terms, Le Tub is closely related to a magnificent sequence of pastels that Degas made in the mid-1880s, which depict women standing, kneeling, crouching, or sitting in the same sort of shallow basin. The artist exhibited several of these pastels in the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition in 1886, where they provoked heated controversy. The liberties that Degas took with accepted canons of physical grace alarmed contemporary critics, who likened his angular, awkwardly posed bathers to zoological specimens. Freed from all narrative codes and literary references, Degas' bathers also gave rise to intense and uncomfortable speculation about the identity of the women depicted. Were they prostitutes (who were required by law to bathe frequently), working women, or even modern bourgeoises? ‘Uncertainty about the sexual status of the women depicted provides Degas' images with one of their most powerful effects of modernity,’ Carol Bernheimer has written. ‘A hint of prostitution is countered by a suggestion of autonomy; an alluring appearance of sexual accessibility is undermined by an alienating sense of the subject's absorption’ (C. Bernheimer, Figures of Ill Repute: Representing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century France, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1989, p. 163).
The pose of the figure in Le Tub only amplifies these ambiguities. In Degas' pastels, the bathers use the round vessel as a catch basin, dousing themselves in water and quickly scrubbing. In the sculpture, by contrast, the reclining pose of the svelte young bather suggests a luxurious, full-immersion bath. The hand that holds the sponge lies to the side, unused, and the bather idly massages her raised left foot with her other hand, as though daydreaming. There is even a sense of languor in her hair, loosened and cascading over the edge of the basin rather than gathered in a chignon to keep dry. ‘This exceptional sculpture epitomises Degas' elusive blend of anti-idealist modern imagery and artistic control,’ Suzanne Glover Lindsay has written. ‘The shallow, flared walls of the tub expose the bather's entire body as three-dimensional form: she spills over and rises well above the rim. The water's low level silhouettes the voluptuous curves of her body at their widest points. However the subject is read, its formal and erotic power is palpable’ (S. Glover Lindsay, Edgar Degas Sculpture, Washington, D.C., 2010, p. 256).
The original wax version of this ground-breaking sculpture is housed today in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the bronze modèle in the Norton Simon Art Museum. Other bronze casts of Le Tub reside in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the National Gallery of Scotland, the Stedelijk Museum, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, and the Musée d'Orsay.