Many people consider Edgar Degas' pastels from the 1890s to be some of the most impressive, experimental and expressive of his entire career. Executed during the latter half of that decade, Femme se coiffant features one of the themes that Degas clearly revelled in exploring during that period: the woman à sa toilette. In some of his pictures of this subject, he would show girls being helped by other figures to comb their hair or dry their body, whereas others focus on the introspective, self-absorbed act of the lone woman; a number of these now hang in museums throughout the world including the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
In Femme se coiffant, Degas has largely depicted the woman of the title through a vigorous application of charcoal with which he has delineated her form and lent a sense of deep shadow to her face, her arms, her sleeves and her side. Running like a river of colour against the grey and black of the charcoal and the sheet, which is largely left in reserve, is the bold streak of rich reddish-brown pastel, depicting the model's hair.
The theme of la toilette was one that had recurred in Degas' works, first as an innocent theme of female bonding and subsequently with overtones of the brothel, adding a layer of sensuality to the motif; this was perhaps most evident in the lithographs on the subject that Degas created around 1891, at the very beginning of the decade. The idea of seeing these informal, private moments of preparation lends a strong atmosphere of intimisme to Degas' images, echoing that of the Nabis--who were active in Paris during the same period--as well as the searing vision of his admirer, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In Femme se coiffant, Degas appears to be giving the viewer a privileged glimpse of an almost secret moment. Like the dancers whom he liked to portray off-stage in the frozen seconds of preparation before they plunged into action, Femme se coiffant shows a behind-the-scenes view that reveals the art that underpinned the art: in the ballet, the warming up, the practice and the final adjustments of costume are preludes to a faultless, graceful show. Similarly here, it is the process of beautification itself that acts as prelude to the more formal images of women of the belle époque, to which we are accustomed.
As with Degas' pictures on the theme of ballerinas, many of his subjects were in fact models, who were asked to sustain single poses for a long time in order to give Degas the chance to lend them - conversely - a sense of movement, here implied in the motion of combing hair. Degas put a great deal of study and observation into his works, also working from memory and from the imagination, in order to create the impression of naturalism. As he explained, 'Drawing is not what one sees but what one can make others see' (quoted in R. Kendall, ed., Degas by Himself: Drawings, Prints, Paintings, Writings, London, 1987, p. 319).