During the 1890s Degas began a process in which he largely ignored the genre subjects drawn from modern life that had preoccupied him earlier in his career, and instead he concentrated mainly on his familiar dancers and bathers, with occasional forays into portraiture and landscape painting. One important reason for this transformation was his diminished eyesight, which prevented him from observing the modern scene with his accustomed acuity. His later paintings and pastels evince less interest in the individual character of his models and details of their costume and accessories, and instead show the artist reaching for a more broadly expressive style.
Crucial to this new approach was the concept of working in series, in which the artist developed a sequence of compositions on a motif, as a musician would compose variations on a theme. Other artists of his time used this principle, such as Claude Monet in his poplar and haystack paintings, and in the great Rouen Cathedral sequence, or Camille Pissarro in his boulevard scenes and Paul Cézanne in his views of Mont-Saint-Victoire. However, only Degas made this method the very basis of his art, so that many works are closely interrelated, and some subjects exist in groups numbering as many as thirty works.
Degas's sequential method was based on creation of form through line, through the act of drawing. To emphasize the expressive aspect of the human form in motion, Degas put aside the pencils, Conté crayons, pens and ink that he preferred to use as a young man, and during this period drew almost exclusively in charcoal. Applied in broad and heavy strokes, charcoal was easier for the artist to see from a short distance and it could produce a drawing that would continue to assert its contours even with the overlay of pastel or oil paint. It also lent itself to easy tracing and transfer, techniques that Degas employed with increasing frequency as he worked in series, adapting and altering his subjects from one sheet to the next.
The present drawing is a study for the pastel La toilette, fillette, also drawn circa 1895 (Lemoisne, no. 1199). These works are in many respects successors to a pastel done in 1888-1892 (Lemoisne, no. 966), which shows a model facing a mirror, bent forward over her toilette, with her dressing gown rolled down to her hips. In 1888-1892 he also drew several pastel studies which show the model in a similar pose, but with her right arm raised to sponge her back (Lemoisne, nos. 967-968), a posture taken from a pastel of a bather in a tub done circa 1887 (Lemoisne, no. 915). Around 1895 Degas drew a pastel in which the model similarly bends forward, her right arm again raised to sponge her back, but with her left arm lowered to the table (Femme s'epongeant le dos; Lemoisne, no. 1197).
The artist thereafter decided to show the figure almost full length and executed the present drawing with this end in mind. He may have traced Lemoisne, no. 1197, and then added a substantial piece of paper to the lower side; the join is faintly visible. The extension permitted him to try out a composition in the which the folds in the material of the longer gown would take up a much larger area of the picture. The final pastel in this series, Lemoisne, no. 1199, is actually less than half the height of the present study. It shows model bent forward in front of her mirror, with extended gown; however, the artist substitutes a fine porcelain dish for the bowl, and adds a pitcher to her left. He also lowers her right arm once again, so that her pose recalls the initial version done several years earlier (Lemoisne, no. 966).
The serial nature of Degas's late works is fascinating to trace, for in it one may observe an artistic counterpart to the scientific ideas of Charles Darwin regarding evolution and natural selection that were gaining currency in the late 19th century. The artist labors tirelessly to achieve the optimum pictorial effect. However, while an ultimate version in a series may exist, it is nevertheless still only a stage in an ongoing process, for the process, not the picture, is what interests the artist most. Pablo Picasso in his final years pursued this same idea in his artist and model series, when he said "I have reached the stage where the movement of my thought interests me more than the thought itself" (quoted in M.-L. Bernadac, Late Picasso, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 88). One of the select circle of earlier artists to whom Picasso made frequent reference in his late paintings is Degas.