Degas entered the 1880s as a champion of the Naturalist movement, praised for his worldly and adventurous portrayals of the varied strata of contemporary Parisian society. However, as he approached the end of the decade and the time at which he executed Femme se coiffant, la lettre, his art turned inward, with the last Impressionist group show in 1886 marking his effective withdrawal from significant public exhibitions. Henceforth, Degas would adopt a more introverted approach to subject matter, increasingly seeking inspiration from the model within his studio. This professional privacy developed in contrast to his continued public presence amongst the artistic milieu of late nineteenth-century Paris, where he counted composers, poets, authors and playwrights amongst his circle. Paul-André Lemoisne, the father of Degas studies and compiler of the admirable catalogue raisonné, when turning his attention to this phase of the artist's career, wrote: 'The years between 1878 and 1893 deserve special attention because they represented the apogee of Degas career, the period in which he creates, easily and powerfully, a magnificent series of masterpieces. However, the manner in which Degas conceived his art did not change: the subjects that interested him are more or less identical, with the addition only of the milliners and the nudes. Although the originality of his groupings and his mise-en-page are more marked, his method of composition is for all that still the same' (quoted in J. Sutherland Boggs (ed.), exh. cat., Degas, New York, 1988, p. 364).
The subject of a bather or a woman at her toilette grew in importance for Degas as his career progressed and in his later years it was only outnumbered by ballet subjects. Aside from the attractions of its natural classical allusions, the bather motif's inherent intimacy lent itself to the spatial contingencies of working in a studio. As a subject, moreover, it carried the ballast of four centuries of artistic exploration. Degas, along with his colleagues Renoir and Cézanne, was fascinated by the art of the past and felt compelled to measure himself against previous achievements. As a result, each of the three turned to the bather subject with greater intensity towards the ends of their careers. In contrast, the pressing modernity of Degas' bather pictures has also been argued elsewhere, where they are seen by some to 'tackle the awkwardness and disequilibrium of contemporary experience, its anxieties as well as its comforts' (R. Kendall, exh. cat., Degas, Beyond Impressionism, London, 1996, p. 231). The present work, executed in the years immediately following the famous series of pastel nude bathers Degas exhibited at the final Impressionist group show in 1886, stands at the threshold of his final phase, enjoying the forceful linear structure of the earlier works, while also pointing towards the colouristic revelry of the late great works.
The 1880s witnessed Degas's increased use of pastel. For instance, of the ten works he exhibited at the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886, every one was executed in pastel. This growing preference for such a purely colouristic medium would seem at first glance to sit uneasily with Degas's preoccupation with the power of line. The celebrated words of Ingres' short lesson to the tyro artist - 'One must draw lines, many lines!' - bore fruit in the peerless draughtsmanship of Degas in the 1870s, whether with chalk and pencil on paper or in oil paints. However, the immediacy and expressive potential of pastel was a powerful lure for Degas. Richard Kendall takes up the story: 'Nothing could be further from the vaunted ideals, if not the documented practice of Ingres, and nothing reminds us so forcibly of the independence of Degas's studio procedures, despite his rhetorical insistence to the contrary... Where draughtsmanship was timeless, the dusty particles of pastel were said to be unstable; where line was austere, pastel was notoriously decorative; and where drawing was seen as virile and male, colour, and especially the frivolity of tinted chalks, was considered irretrievably feminine' (ibid., p. 93). The rich red-orange of the sitter's hair in the present work is strikingly off-set by the violet-blue cascade of the curtain at the left and in undertones at the uppermost edge of her coiffure. This abstract harmony is in turn taken up by the russet, olive and lime green pattern of the background.
Moreover, to the traditionally-minded Degas, for whom the Old Masters were sacrosanct, the motif of a female bather at her toilet with a letter had obvious resonances. The most celebrated precursor was Rembrandt's Bathsheba in the Louvre. In the Rembrandt, the letter has been read by the sitter, whereas, in Femme se coiffant, la lettre, the letter, with all its possibilities of adventure or peril, has yet to be opened. Texts in general, whether read or otherwise, had been a recurring theme in Degas's middle period, from the catalogue being closely studied by the seated woman in At the Louvre (Lemoisne 581; Private collection), probably modelled on Lydia Cassatt, Mary's sister, through to the immersed newspaper readers of Dancer resting (Lemoisne 573; Private collection) and The Dance Class (Lemoisne 479; Philadelphia Museum of Art). None of which should be surprising for this most literary of artists. Perhaps, in fact, the theatricality of the present work, which it shares with many of the greatest works from The Milliners series, means that it is equally well viewed not only in the context of the bather works but also in the context of Degas's mastery of psychological insight.