A woman is captured in one of her most intimate moments - alone, in the silence of her softly-lit bedroom, she is attending to her pédicure. With a masterful twist, Degas has ennobled the simple mundanity of the action through a classical quotation, since the woman's pose is modelled on the Spinario, one of the iconic masterpieces of Roman sculpture of the late Ist century BC. Degas knew this sculpture very well; in his youth, he had admired the original bronze version in the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome, while during his frequent visits to the Louvre he could also see the replica made in 1540 and housed in the museum since 1850.
The only company the woman allows in the inner sanctum of her secluded space is her dog, laying beside her on the bed, a charming anecdotal addition to the narrative of the picture. The entire pastel is woven out of careful layers of oranges, pinks, apricots and warm browns, overtaking the cooler greens, white and blues of the towel and the background. Degas has superbly mixed the figures and the setting, intertwining the elements through the soft richness of the pastel: the dog emerges as a precious reward to the attentive viewer, who cannot decipher it at first glance; similarly, the artist's signature is almost embroidered on the bed-spread, thus playing a decorative part in the composition.
The atmosphere of indolent sensuality is conveyed by the use of the artificial light, mediated by the pink screen of the abat-jour. With his usual daring approach, Degas chose to direct full light onto the bed-table, and onto the rather disturbing tweezers in the foreground, by which he emphasised the simplicity of the woman's actitivity. At the same time, Degas dimmed the light on her face, maximising the impact of her naked body bathed in the warm glow of the lamp. The compositional device of the abat-jour at one edge of the subject was typical of a series of works executed by the artist since the early 1880s, and remained a staple in his later experiments with photography. The photograph of a woman putting on stockings, taken in 1895-96, is particularly close to the present pastel in the lighting and structure. Again, with voyeuristic intrusion, Degas stole a moment of feminine intimacy (in the case of stockings, epitomising classic seduction). The woman's head is similarly lowered, and the emphasis put on her body, gloriously lit from the right.
The 'highly detailed description of the nude figure, the table, and the lamp, its careful attention to the effect of artificial light and the play of half-light and shadow over the figure, its refined handling of pastel in thin, closely spaced strokes' of L'épine have convinced Theodore Reff that this pastel over monotype belongs not to the series executed by Degas in 1890-95 (as suggested by Lemoisne, op. cit.), but rather 'to a group of about a dozen toilette scenes, showing a nude woman bathing, reclining or getting into bed, that are generally dated to 1880-85, and several of them more specifically to circa 1883' (letter of Theodore Reff to Christie's, December 2006). One of the most relevant works in this group is Le coucher (L. 743, The Art Institute of Chicago), where the sensuality of L'épine is replaced by a less charged tranquillity - 'she has just bathed and dried herself with the towel that she will drop on the floor as she turns out the light' (R.B. Brettell, Degas in The Art Institute of Chicago, New York, 1984, p. 139). As in L'épine, 'Degas seems almost to have conceived this pastel for night viewing: the superbly controlled chiaroscuro functions best in very dim light, and the colors of the woman's skin and the drapery seem to throb with life in the half-light' (ibid.).
The effect of soft and rich layering of L'épine was obtained through one of the techniques that Degas mastered most skilfully: the working with pastel of a monotype impression. The combination of monotype, which allowed fluid and undefined lines, with pastel, bringing the mysterious atmosphere created by the ink to chromatically sumptuous effects, was particularly appreciated by Degas in the late 1880s. A very successful example of this technique, with a similar subject, is Femme sortant du bain (L. 891, Private collection).
Whilst Lemoisne did not record the monotyped bases for Femme sortant du bain, nor for L'épine, which he both catalogued as 'pastels' (op. cit.), Eugenia Parry Janis listed the cognate for Femme sortant du bain (Degas Monotypes, Cambridge, 1968, no. 122), but not for L'épine.
The monotype allowed Degas the basis for the restrained, warm palette of the present work, which, as Theodore Reff pointed out, '... has of course its own attraction, creating an intimate, nocturnal mood, and imparting a Rembrandtesque sense of mystery. Rembrandt, whose mastery of black and white Degas admired, has been evoked by myself and other scholars apropos of Degas' monotypes of toilette scenes. "Si Rembrandt avait connu la lithographie" Degas liked to say, "Dieu sait ce qu'il en aurait fait!" (P.A. Lemoisne, op. cit., vol. I, p. 133)' (letter of Theodore Reff to Christie's, December 2006).
The freshness of this work is strongly indebted to its distinguished provenance. Franz Koenigs acquired it in the early 1930s, and never parted from it - except of for the two extended loans to the Rijksmuseum (1930-1938) and the Stedelijk Museum (1938 - 1949), a testimony to the proud generosity of the collector.
We are grateful to Professor Theodore Reff for his precious insights in researching the present work.