Degas' last creative period, covering the 1890s and continuing until about 1910, is considered by many scholars his most accomplished and successful. His constant experimentation and ongoing search for perfection found expression through his unsurpassed mastery of one medium above all others - pastel - and his depictions of bathers in this medium are outnumbered only by his dance subjects. By the mid-1880s, he had abandoned the aggressive and open carnality which had earlier proved so controversial with the public, and his nudes finally met with more favourable criticism.
Degas undertook the subject of bathers caught during their most intimate toilettes with a spontaneity and lack of pre-meditation that sets him aside from the more academic use of models by his contemporaries. Degas loathed graceful and studied poses, seeking instead a more naturally observed manner of depicting his models as they engaged in their private ablutions. Degas was fascinated by his models' movements, their rhythmic gestures and the unexpected sensuality of a shoulder or the movement of an arm. Degas would invite women into his atelier and get them to undertake their toilette, an invitation the models welcomed at a time when a bath was a rare luxury in many neighbourhoods of Paris. He would ask them to undress casually and leisurely, to bathe, to free and comb their hair, to dry themselves with towels and, in extremely sensual depictions, to put on their stockings and lingerie before finally dressing.
The present work, executed circa 1888-1892, depicts the model in a very private act of washing. With her left arm extended and supporting her as she leans over the basin, she presents an elegant pose, full of tension and balance, at once subtle and sensual, with a typical lack of idealisation. Degas' use of colour - applied sparingly but with outstanding delicacy - echoes the figure's poise and the balance of the composition. The stunning blues in the basin and its surrounds give depth to the composition and articulate the negative space that is created by the shape of the model's body and arm, while the subtle use of green, applied only to the right half of the background, highlight the delicate and varied nuances of colour in the woman's back and the precise, close strokes with which he traces her form.
Degas explored the motif of the bather leaning over the same blue basin in several other works from this period, including Femme à sa toilette, circa 1892 and it is in the subtle differences of their compositions and the endless variations of his models' poses that one can see Degas' ongoing experimentation with form. The same pose that Degas employed in the present work is explored in two further works executed at about the same time, both entitled Femme sépongeant le dos (L. 967 & 968), in which the model's extended left arm is counterpoised by her right arm as she twists round to wash her back.