In the final two decades of his career, Degas's depiction of bathers occurs second in frequency only to his dance subjects. By the mid- 1880s Degas had divested this theme of the aggressive, naturalistic carnality that had been so controversial in earlier pictures, in which his models were widely perceived to have been prostitutes or other denizens of the demi-monde, and his nudes met with a more favorable response. As Richard Kendall has noted, "such figures might well suggest 'loveliness' and recall classical statuary; and rather than being clandestine objects, like the semi-pornographic monotypes, these pastels might reasonably take their place on the walls of respectable homes." (Degas: Beyond Impressionism, The Art Institute of Chicago exhibition catalogue, 1996, p. 142). Kendall recounts that many of the nude bathers entered respectable collections, and indeed, many such works were selected by wives of important collectors, most notably Louisine Havemeyer and Mrs. Potter Palmer.
The present work is related to Femme s'essuyant (Lemoisne, vol. III, no. 794; The H.O. Havemeyer Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). There are several related studies and counterproofs, and the figure is also depicted in reverse in another series (Lemoisne, vol. III, nos. 790-793). The sequential treatment of a pose is an essential characteristic of Degas's methods in his late works, and may be understood as a parallel to the series paintings of Monet or the repeated depiction of motifs in the late work of Cézanne.
Indeed, this process appears to become an end in itself: while some versions may be perceived as studies for others, they are often larger than their more "finished" relations, and the distinctive character of each version encourages the viewer to consider it as an entirely independent work, each offering equally significant and insightful variations on the basic pose or theme. By this time Degas prefered the use of charcoal and pastel in his drawings. These media enabled him to work quickly--he would establish the contours and basic shading of the figure with the smokey tones of the charcoal stick and then overlay the figure and its setting with rapid strokes of pastel, using the pastel shades like a color shorthand. Degas usually obtained the close similarity of poses within a series by means of tracing. Once the basic contours were transfered to a new sheet, the paper was laid down on a board strong enough to withstand the repeated working of additional charcoal and pastel. By turning the traced sheet around and then laying it down Degas could quickly reverse the direction of the image, a process somewhat akin to the use of counterproof.