Among the pastels Edgar Degas chose to exhibit at the final Impressionist exhibition of 1886 were ten works which marked the debut of his domestic bathers theme – ‘Suite de nuds [sic] de femmes se baignant, se lavant, se séchant, s’essuyant …’ (‘Suite of nudes of women bathing, washing, drying themselves …’). Fusing tradition with innovation, these scenes of the female nude àsa toilette were deemed scandalous by many contemporary viewers. While painting a bather as the mythical Diana or the biblical Susanna was perfectly acceptable in the official Salon, as Degas remarked to his dealer Ambroise Vollard, ‘a woman undressing, never!’ (quoted in A. Vollard, Degas: An Intimate Portrait, New York, 1937, p. 48). Instead, freed from literary or mythological associations and separated from an easily legible societal context, Degas’s nude bathers presented a radical new vision of the female body. As the art critic Théodore Duret wrote, with these compositions the artist ‘[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, ed., Degas By Himself: Drawings,Prints,Paintings, Writings, London, 1987, p. 150).
Created circa 1886-1889, Femme sortant du bain is an elegant example of this bold new motif within Degas’s oeuvre, executed in a shimmering array of colourful pastels. One of the most notable elements of Degas’s bathers from this period was his preference for the less premeditated movements of his female subjects as they went about their daily activities, focusing his eye on the private moments of personal care and everyday rituals that marked their lives. Here, the woman’s body is filled with a palpable inner tension, her muscles held taut as she finishes her bath and reaches over the edge of the tub for her peignoir or robe, crouching slightly at the knees as she holds herself steady. Bright sunlight falls through the window on the left, creating a delicate play of light and shade along the length of her body, its rays highlighting the golden tones of her hair gathered in a loose knot atop her head, the soft curves of her thighs, and the lean muscles of her arms. The emphasis of the pose lies in the sensuous expanse of her back as it catches the light, its gently curving lines fully exposed to our eyes by her movement, which Degas further accentuates by adopting a slightly elevated vantage point.
Hitherto the nude has always been represented in poses which presuppose an audience, these women of mine are honest, simple folk, unconcerned by any other interests than those involved in their physical condition... It is as if you looked through the keyhole”
Degas had first explored this particular scene in a dark-field monotype print, a process he had experimented with extensively through the 1870s, revelling in the spontaneous play of light and shadow it conjured. Created by applying black, greasy ink to the surface of a polished metal plate, using brushes or sometimes fingers to add and subtract tone, monochrome compositions were then printed by laying a sheet of paper on the inked plate and applying pressure to the surface via a printing press. Degas would often then generate a second impression by running another piece of paper through immediately afterwards, creating a paler image with the remaining ink, which he would later rework using charcoal or pastels, as in the present Femme sortant du bain. In this later version of the scene, Degas took the opportunity to analyse and correct the anatomy of the rounder feminine figure seen in the original monotype, refining the woman’s proportions and imbuing her svelte form with a greater sense of grace. Her torso is lengthened and straightened, the sharp points of her elbows more prominently emphasised as they move to pick up the robe, while her legs are brought together and bent slightly at the knees, allowing the figure a greater sense of balance and control as she reaches beyond the edge of the tub.
These subtle adjustments reveal the intensity with which Degas was studying the human figure during this period. Indeed, though inherently more intimate than the images of ballerinas he was working on concurrently, Degas’s nude bathers offered a similar opportunity to investigate the intricacies and nuances of the body in movement. Despite his claims that his pictures appeared to be seen as through a keyhole, like stolen glimpses, the artist was also more than willing to confess that his paintings, pastels and drawings were an act of deliberate artifice, created using models who posed for hours in his prop-filled studio. The pastel also offers more details of the interior space in which the scene takes place than the dark, mysterious surroundings of the earlier monotype, with the artist adding a frame to the mirror behind his model, altering the profile of the simple chair, and increasing the sense of depth within the room. However, it is in Degas’s use of colour that Femme sortant du bain is truly transformed, its bright hues and bold facture revealing the artist’s growing mastery of the pastel medium. The wallpaper becomes a riot of different hues, filled with elongated parallel strokes of orange, bright pinks and cool blues, which shift and change tone in the falling light, their bright hues reflected in the rippling surface of the bath water. Similarly, the woman’s body is imbued with a luminosity and warmth by the delicate play of peach tones across her skin, the dynamic strokes of pigment adding a rich sense of texture to her form.
Femme sortant du bain was one of nine nudes exhibited by Degas at Boussod et Valadon on the boulevard Montmartre in early 1888, then managed by Theo van Gogh. In his review of the small show, Felix Fénéon discussed the effect of Femme sortant du bain: ‘already standing up to get out of the bath, another, with yellow-golden hair, stretches out to grab a dressing gown, while the lapping water reflect the red walls, green shadows in her groin…’ (quoted in R. Thomson, Degas: The Nudes, London, 1988, p. 132). The pastel also featured in a suite of sketches by Paul Gauguin, most likely created during a visit to the exhibition. A leading disciple of Degas’s in the 1880s, Gauguin was intimately familiar with the artist’s work of the period, and chose to emphasise the poise and energy of the figure in the present work in his sketches, focusing on the straight line of the woman’s spine as she lifts the robe, and the fall of light and shadow across her form. Degas himself would signal the success of Femme sortant du bain by choosing it as one of just fifteen compositions from his entire oeuvre to be included in an important suite of prints published in 1889. Produced in close collaboration with the renowned British lithographer G.W. Thornley, these were the only reproductions of his works that Degas sanctioned in his lifetime.
Lot Essay Header Image: The present lot illustarted (detail).