EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
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This lot has been imported from outside of the UK … Read more PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION
EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)

Femme nue s'essuyant

EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
Femme nue s'essuyant
stamped with the signature 'Degas' (Lugt 658; lower right)
pastel and charcoal on coloured squared paper laid down on canvas
19 1/2 x 12 5/8 in. (49.5 x 32 cm.)
Executed in 1895
The artist's estate; third sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 9 April 1919, lot 74.
M. Aubert, Paris, by whom acquired at the above sale.
Dr Georges Viau, Paris.
Arnold S. Askin, New York.
Eugene V. Thaw, New York.
Private collection, New York, by whom acquired from the above, by 1966, and thence by descent; sale, Christie's, New York, 4 November 2010, lot 130.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
P.-A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, vol. III, Peintures et pastels, 1883-1908, Paris, 1947, no. 1180, p. 684 (illustrated p. 685; with incorrect medium).
Washington D.C., The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Five Years: The Friends of the Corcoran, 'The Contemporary Spirit', October 1966, no. 17, n.p. (illustrated n.p.; with incorrect medium).
Special notice
This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.

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Lot Essay

The female nude was a subject which preoccupied Edgar Degas throughout his career. While ballet dancers, milliners, and laundresses would capture his attention at different times, he invariably returned to the nude as a means to examine form and the physical articulation of the body literally stripped to its fundamental essence. Just as depictions of ballet dancers address the extreme contortions of which the human body is capable, so too do his nudes depict what the critic Lloyd Schwartz describes as ‘the everyday awkwardness of real life’, a corporeal ingenuousness that was examined in the 2011 exhibition Degas and the Nude, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

The present work, a toilette scene executed relatively late in the artist’s life when he was sixty-one and at the height of his powers, shows the cropped figure reaching behind to dry herself, her left arm bent backwards to its fullest extent while her right arm supports her weight as her head is bowed and her body leans forward. In contrast to Degas’ depictions of figures occupying a social or public sphere, his nudes are domestic, intimate, and private, and here the facial expression shows us the subject concentrating on the execution of an uncomfortable but necessary movement. The figure might be better described as naked rather than nude in the classical sense – her movement seems practiced and familiar but the viewer senses her vulnerability as we are given a voyeuristic glimpse inside her retreat, unaware of our gaze. At the same time, Degas’ exploration of such unposed poses signals his embrace of modernity in art, and his radical rejection of historical form.

The comparable work After the Bath, Woman drying herself (circa 1888-1892) which hangs in London’s National Gallery, examines the same subject, this time with the figure facing away, but it is the attitude of the body in the simple act of towelling which the artist is interested in. Again, the arm is bent unnaturally to raise the shoulder blades to prominence as the other holds the edge of the bath for support. In both works however, Degas captures a fleeting moment of unselfconscious movement and energy. In both works, the body is observed doing routine things but which reveal just how extraordinary is the instinctive equilibrium involved in such reality: ‘Hitherto the nude has always been represented in poses which presuppose an audience. But my women are simple, honest creatures who are concerned with nothing beyond their physical occupations. It is as if you were looking through a keyhole' (E. Degas, quoted in R. Kendall, ed., Degas by Himself: Drawings, Prints, Paintings, Writings, London, 1987, p. 311).

Critics have argued whether these scenes have an erotic element to them but the artist himself, while acknowledging in the quote above the idea of what might seem to be illicit surveillance, seems more interested in giving expression to an asymmetrical naturalism and sensual grace that represents a break with the art of the past and which disrupts traditional notions of compositional balance.

The fleshy solidity of the figure in the present work is rendered not just by Degas’ superb anatomical draughtsmanship, but by the medium employed. He experimented freely with different mark-making materials during his long career and the use of pastel and charcoal lend a freedom and spontaneity (little preparation is needed and no drying time is involved) that oils would struggle to match but which here emphasise the figurative modernity of the unidealized subject matter, articulating what was a new visual idiom. And yet despite the innovative techniques, the work manages to convey an extraordinary presence and sculptural quality. The rhythmic use of white pastel over the colour-toned paper allows the bathed skin to glisten and gives the towel its fleeciness, while the charcoal provides shadowed depths and outlining that leaves us with a sense of the body’s volume and vigour – at the same time, the subtle rose tones used on the face cleverly suggest its bath-warmed temperature.

Degas’ nudes have been hugely influential on the works of other artists. Picasso’s Nude with Towel (1907) and Nude Wringing her Hair (1951) for instance evidences the Spanish artist’s obsession with Degas (he kept a photograph of Degas in his studio and acquired some of his monotypes in the 1950s), while post-Impressionist works such as Pierre Bonnard’s Le Grand Nu Bleu (1924) owe a significant debt to the master, inspired by the subject matter and transforming it into a meditation on colour.

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