Edgar Degas’ Après le bain, trois femmes nues captures an intimate scene of three female nudes resting on the grass after a bath. The radiant pastel composition of apple greens and light ochres, with strokes of cobalt blue and sweeps of orange, depicts three female figures in a state of nonchalant relaxation. They recline comfortably en plein air, feeling at ease with each other’s company, in a very summery, tranquil atmosphere. Executed circa 1890-1895, Après le bain, trois femmes nues dates from Degas’ mature period when he defined himself predominantly as a pastellist; it was at this time that Degas found his unique impressionist style and ‘Venetian’ colour palette for which he would become renowned (D. Rouart, quoted in A. Werner, Degas Pastels, New York, 1977, p. 16). In the later years of his career, nudes were at the heart of Degas’s œuvre, almost becoming his artistic obsession. As Pierre-Auguste Renoir confessed to his dealer Ambroise Vollard, ‘If Degas had died at fifty he would have been remembered as an excellent painter, no more: it is after his fiftieth year that his work broadened out and that he really becomes Degas’ (Renoir, quoted in R. Kendall, exh. cat., Degas: Beyond Impressionism, London, 1996, p. 10).
For Degas, pastel opened his technique to a realm of new motifs, allowing him to capture, on the spot, even the most fugitive postures and flowing movements of his female models - something that was nearly impossible to achieve using traditional oil paint. In the early 1890s, Degas endlessly studied the movements of his models, be it dancers or bathers, in his Montmartre studio, and was obsessed by the accuracy of their depiction. As his photographer friend Malcolm Daniel, who often visited his studio, remarked, ‘I saw him with a model, trying to pose her in movement of drying herself while leaning on the high padded back of the chair covered with a bathrobe. This movement is complicated. The woman is being shown from the back, you see her shoulder blades, but the right shoulder, bearing the weight of the body, takes a most unexpected shape which suggests some kind of acrobatic activity of violent effort’ (M. Daniel, Edgar Degas, Photographer, New York, 1998, pp. 41-42).
The Bathers are without question the most seductive and enticing subjects of Degas’ œuvre. The nude figures depicted in Après le bain, trois femmes nues, resting while drying after their bath, look fragile and sensual at once, both in their poses and their facial expressions. The curves springing from their hips provoke the viewer’s imagination whilst maintaining the pure beauty of an innocent scenery. Considered by some one of the greatest draftsmen since the Renaissance, in works such as Après le bain, trois femmes nues, Degas presents a wholly new, radical vision of classical subjects like the nude and the theme of three graces (K. Clark, quoted in A. Werner, op. cit.).
Not only did the soft, malleable medium of pastel enable Degas to religiously study the movements of his celebrated dancers and bathers, but it also gave him the means to experiment with colour to a degree that he had not experienced before. During this period, Degas became bolder in his use of different textures, often juxtaposing pastel with gouache, thinned oil or watercolour to increase the intensity and luminosity of his works.
Berthe Morisot described Degas’ late work as becoming ‘more and more extraordinary,’ and there is no doubt that the artist pushed his spectrum of colours to new heights of vigour, challenging the dynamism of oil painting of the same period. Fascinated by Venetian masters, Degas dreamed of combining effects of density and transparency of tones in a single procedure. Always in pursuit of perfection, he would say: ‘It is essential to do the same subject over and over again, ten times, hundred times’ (quoted in exh. cat., Degas: Beyond Impressionism, Chicago, 1996, p. 10). Indeed, Degas would tirelessly continue to perfect and develop one motif at a time, and his Bathers series is now among the most celebrated in the artist’s œuvre. Examples of other outdoor bathing scenes – which are rare compared to his numerous indoor bathing scenes – now reside in major institutions including the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia and the Art Institute of Chicago.