The impressive scale and powerful rendering of this bathing female figure dates from the period during the latter half of the 1880s when the full maturity of Degas' draughtsmanship is in full evidence. The model's pose seems naturally observed, as if caught in mid-movement. While there is a realistic sense of physical strain, Degas has carefully balanced her limbs in a classical contrapposto. The contours have been rendered with a dramatic clarity born of absolute technical mastery.
Degas first treated the female bather as a subject in a series of monotypes done early in that decade, as part of a larger group showing intimate scenes of nude women in interiors (see lot 10). These innovative monotypes took the place of pencil or charcoal studies; the artist normally reworked one of the pair of impressions he pulled from the plate to create a fully finished pastel. Degas soon began to develop this subject in more ambitious terms, and moved beyond the small formats to which the monotype plates were limited by executing larger studies and creating finished pastel compositions. Gary Tinterow has noted that "the experience of seeing Manet's nudes in a large scale may well have prompted Degas to move his scènes intimes out of the monotype format and onto large boards" (in Degas, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988, p. 368).
By the late 1880s, Degas had largely dispensed with the use of pencils, Conté crayon, black chalk, and pen and black ink for drawing, and turned to charcoal almost exclusively. He also began to work in series, in which he based inter-related clusters of works on a single pose, varying elements from one version to the next.
Degas employed tracing and counterproofing (the production of a secondary image, seen in reverse, by placing a drawing against a dampened sheet in a press) to develop these sequences of variations on a theme. Early stages of the pose used in the present drawing may be seen in two quickly executed charcoal studies (Atelier Degas; third sale, lots 207 and 244). The present drawing appears to be the definitive study for the pastel, Le bain, femme s'épongeant le dos, ascribed to the same date (Lemoisne no. 915). The contours of the figure in the pastel may have been traced from this study--the figures are about the same size, even if the overall sheet size of the pastel is somewhat smaller due to cropping. At some stage in the making of the pastel, Degas made a counterproof of it (Atelier Degas; third sale, lot 372).
By collating the use of charcoal and pastel in this serial manner, Degas achieved, in Tinterow's words, "the fusion of color with drawing." He went on to state, "In the bathers, he pushed his interests of mid-decade to new extremes, as if unfettered by any consideration other than the exigencies of pictorial construction. His figures are now models posing frankly in the studio, not women seen 'through the keyhole' washing in their homes. Any suggestion of anecdote or humor is gone, replaced by a more profound exploration of the expressive properties of form, line, color and feeling" (op. cit., p. 369).