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 vigorous practice of his craft. The center of attention is always the woman’s angled back, imbued with a firmly muscular monumentality, as well as an appropriate voluptuousness.
Femme s’essuyant les cheveux is a classic statement of the primacy of line in Degas’s oeuvre after 1890. This drawing is likely an early 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 and the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena.
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. While some may describe such moments as mundane, the artist viewed them as mysteriously ritualized displays of feminine ablutions in the shared, intimate environment of his studio.
The flowing, cascading lines of the bath contrast with the smooth expanse of the bather’s exposed flesh, harmonized 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 color, 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.