This pastel is a study for the important oil painting of the same title, also done circa 1892-1895 (Lemoisne no. 1128; fig. 1), once owned by Henri Matisse and thereafter by his son Pierre, who sold it to the National Gallery, London. Richard Kendall has written, "The subject of the coiffure, where a solitary woman combs her hair or has it brushed by a maid, inspired some of the finest pictorial inventions of Degas's last years. Common to all these depictions, and perhaps responsible for some of their poignancy, is a rudimentary paradox. On one hand, the act of combing, brushing or attending to the hair is one of the most banal and wearisome of daily routines, associated with personal hygiene as much as glamour from the beginning of history. In Degas's day such rituals were still doubly oppressive for women, whose hair was typically kept long, yet was endlessly lifted and coiled, pinned and often kept out of sight for work or public presentation" (in Degas Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., The National Gallery, London, 1996, pp. 218 and 219).
Degas was appreciative of Renaissance and more contemporary versions of this theme, such as Titian's Lady at her toilet in the Louvre, and Ingres's Le bain turc; the latter was held in Paris collections and was widely published before and after it was sold to the Louvre in 1911. Degas was also familiar with Japanese prints showing women of the pleasure-houses of old Edo (Tokyo) engaged in brushing their hair. Indeed, as a woman's long hair was often the fetishized object of male attention, the intimate feminine ritual of hair-brushing, usually carried on out-of-sight of a gentleman's gaze, carried strong sensual and erotic connotations. This subject attracted numerous other artists in Degas's day, including Puvis de Chavannes, Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Degas has heightened the intensity of this otherwise prosaic activity in the pastel by having the young woman touch her forehead with a dramatic gesture of her arm, "as if she were suffering from migraine; the anguish is physical" (Jean Sutherland Boggs, in Degas, exh. cat., op cit.). The oil version is somewhat less expressive in this respect, for which the artist has compensated by giving the woman reddish-orange hair, exaggerating the russet color favored by Pre-Raphaelite and fin-de-siècle Symbolist painters and writers, and making it serve as the basis for the overall tonality of the painting. We also note that the woman in the painting is pregnant, which is not visible within the more closely cropped confines of the pastel composition, a fact that underscores the strongly feminine character of the subject.
Based on the present work, and also closely related to the oil painting, is a second pastel (L. 1129; Private collection), that shows the full composition with many more still-life details than Degas included in the final version. Degas also executed another oil painting some time after 1896 showing the two women posed differently, with the color harmony toned down to a more pinkish-yellow hue (L. 1127; Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo). There are related charcoal drawings as well--Atelier Degas, second sale, lot 317; third sale, lots 177, 315 and 318; and fourth sale, lots 168 and 359.
(fig. 1) Edgar Degas, La coiffure, circa 1892-1895. National Gallery, London.Barcode 23671065