The vivid, scintillant, chromatic tints of pastels reigned supreme in late oeuvre of Edgar Degas. All the pictures he had shown in the eighth and final Impressionist group exhibition in 1886—nude bathers, milliners, and portraits—were executed in pastel. By the middle of the following decade, when the character and means of the late style had become fully manifest and definitive in Degas’s art, his use of pastel had largely supplanted oil painting. Among the approximately 500 works the artist created in color after 1890, fewer than fifty were painted in oils; the rest were rendered in varying applications of pastel on paper, ranging from counter-proofs retouched with the powdery sticks, to works such as the present Femme s’essuyant, a fully worked and signed composition, drawn to circa 1899, which is as impressive in scale and visual impact as any of the late oil paintings.
Having finished her bath, this young woman towels herself dry—in the series to which this pastel belongs, specifically her left side, beside her breast—while seated in a scallop-backed chair draped with linen sheets. The lines of the bathtub, of a new, porcelain-enameled, cast-iron design, indicate perspective in the room. Standing above and gazing down on his model, Degas projected between the shapes of the bathtub and chair an abruptly ascending sense of deep space. Amid the prevailing blue-green tonality, the subject appears as if she had been bathing outdoors on a river bank.
The late pastels represent Degas’s resolution of the apparent dichotomy between the perception of color and the semblance of linear contour. “I am a colorist with line,” Degas declared. “To color is to pursue drawing into greater depth” (quoted in R. Kendall, ed., Degas by Himself, New York, 1987, p. 319). The guiding forces in the artist’s evolution had been the exemplary linear discipline manifest in the art of Ingres, in contention with the adventurous, passionate expression of color in Delacroix. A half-century later, Henri Matisse discovered his own solution to reconciling color and line in his paper cut-outs.
Paul Válery recalled Degas stating that a picture is the result of a “series of operations” (quoted in Degas, Manet, Morisot, Princeton, 1960, p. 6). The present Femme s’essuyant pastel stemmed from a sequence of six known charcoal drawings that Degas executed circa 1895-1900, included in the sales of the artist’s atelier: 1ère Vente, no. 314; 2ème Vente, nos. 266, 309, and 311; 3ème Vente, nos. 186 and 292. These studies also resulted in four other related pastels, Lemoisne, nos. 1011, 1340, and 1342-1343.
In the process of tracing the drawings from one to another, and while configuring his subject in the five pastels, Degas altered the elevation of the sitter’s bent left arm, as well as the incline of her back, from the nearly upright contour seen in the present work to a forward-leaning posture in the others. With the addition of room space at both the top and bottom edges, the present Femme s’essuyant and the version, Lemoisne 1342, likewise titled, are the largest in this group. During this period, Degas also modeled a sculpture in wax of this subject, Femme assise dans un fauteuil s’essuyant l’aisselle gauche (Hebrard, no. 43; Rewald, no. LXXII; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).
Among the pastels Degas exhibited in the final Impressionist exhibition of 1886 were ten works which marked the debut of his domestic bathers theme—“Suite de nuds [sic] de femmes se baignant, se lavant, se séchant, s’essuyant …” These scenes of the female nude à sa toilette were deemed scandalous; viewers assumed the artist’s models to be prostitutes, and the rooms those of seedy, cheap hotels. Painting a bather as the mythical Diana or the biblical Susanna was perfectly acceptable in the official Salon—however, as Degas remarked to his dealer Ambroise Vollard, “a woman undressing, never!” (Quoted in A. Vollard, Degas: An Intimate Portrait, New York, 1937, p. 48).
“Hitherto the nude has always been represented in poses which presuppose an audience,” Degas explained to the artist George Moore, “but these women of mine are honest, simple folk, unconcerned by any other interests than those involved in their physical condition. Here she is washing her feet. It is as if you looked through the keyhole” (quoted in R. Kendall, op. cit., 1987, p. 311).
Peering into such intimate and hidden moments in a woman’s private life unsettled many viewers. Accused of prurient voyeurism, decried as a misogynist for the blunt exposure he accorded his female subjects, Degas was dismayed at the outcry, but persisted with the bathers theme. “Retreating from the public eye,” George T.M. Shackelford has written, “Degas treated the nude for himself, for his own gratification, and for his own celebration of the body” (Degas and the Nude, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2011, p. 156).
In deference to his clientele’s conservative inclinations, and more comfortable himself with Degas’s earlier production, Paul Durand-Ruel, since 1874 the artist’s primary dealer, shied away from the bather pastels. Vollard eagerly took up the slack, often acquiring Degas’s recent work in exchange for pictures from his wide-ranging inventory of contemporaries—Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and others—that Degas was seeking to add to his own estimable collection of 19th-century art.
In 1914 Vollard published his Degas holdings, comprising mostly late pastels, in Quatre-vingt-dix-huit reproductions signées par Degas, the so-called "Album Vollard.” This folio of both color and duo-tone plates proved instrumental in creating a market for these pictures outside France, especially in Scandinavia, Germany, and Russia, while inspiring young foreign artists with a modernist bent to emulate Degas’s use of electric color and audacious, emphatic line. The present Femme s’essuyant, as noted in the cataloguing above, is illustrated as plate XLIII in the "Album Vollard."