‘The sheer labour of drawing had become a passion and a discipline for Degas, the object of a mystique and an ethic all-sufficient in themselves, a supreme preoccupation which abolished all other matters, a source of endless problems in precision which released him from any other form of inquiry’ -Paul Valéry
Drawing is not form,’ Edgar Degas declared, ‘it is the sensation one has of it’ (Degas, quoted in R. Kendall, ed., Degas by Himself, London, 1987, p. 319). Rendered exclusively since the late 1880s in the smoky nuances of charcoal, in the twists and turns of an ‘ample line, mobile, supple, elastic, completely autonomous’—as Waldemar George described the artist’s technique—the forceful precision of Degas’s ‘sensations’ in his drawing had become instrumental in expressing figuration and movement in his late work (W. George, ‘Oeuvres de vieillesse de Degas’, in La Renaissance, Paris, January-February 1936, p. 3). The luminous tints of pastel sticks, moreover, had largely displaced brush and oil painting as his method of choice when working in colour—‘I am a colourist in line,’ Degas asserted (Degas, quoted in R. Kendall, ed., op. cit., 1987, p. 319).
Femme s’essuyant les cheveux is a classic statement of the primacy of line in Degas’s oeuvre after 1890. This drawing is likely the progenitive work that seeded a series of numerous further sheets depicting a young woman drying her hair following a bath. These studies culminated in at least a dozen pastels, including two definitive versions of this theme, both in major museums—the National Gallery, London (illustrated above) and the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena (Lemoisne, no. 815; re-dated to circa 1890-1893).
While the ballet dancer remained the dominant thread in Degas’s late production, and represented the artist’s engagement with an art form cast as public performance, steeped in tradition and an exacting, professional discipline, the bathers series issued from a most private encounter. ‘As if you looked through the keyhole,’ Degas remarked (Degas, quoted in ibid., p. 311), the artist gazed upon mundane but mysteriously ritualised displays of feminine ablutions in the shared, intimate environment of his studio (see also lot 2).
A seductive, provocative sense of secrecy suffuses Degas’s domestic bathing scenes; the women are almost always seen from behind, their faces averted or otherwise unseen. Such discretion does not mask, however—indeed, it heightens—a simmering undercurrent of sensuality, even voyeurism, feelings Degas must have struggled to hold at bay through strict adherence to his aesthetic ethos of objectivity and the rigorous practice of his craft. The centre of attention is always the woman’s angled back, imbued with a firmly muscular monumentality, as well as an appropriate voluptuousness—in the present Femme s’essuyant les cheveux, as the bather’s bosom and upper body narrow at the waist and flare into the fullness of her buttocks.
The flowing, cascading lines of the towel contrast with the smooth expanse of the bather’s exposed flesh, harmonised throughout with Degas’s fine hatching—or, in places, the absence of it—tailored to define form and to suggest volume in calibrated modulations of applied shadow. In lieu of colour, which Degas would subsequently add with pastels to certain studies derived from the present drawing, the eye is here treated to a display of form in its most dramatic, dynamic representation, shaped on paper as if carved in wood or stone.