Woman Combing Her Hair (1887-90) by
Woman Combing Her Hair (1887-90)
The last of the Impressionist Exhibitions, held in 1886, was a pivotal moment in the career of Edgar Degas. It was at this show that he submitted a series of new Impressionist paintings including a set of female nudes, bathing, washing, drying themselves, dressing, combing their hair or having their hair combed". They included Young Woman Dressing Herself (1885, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) and The Tub (1886, Musee d'Orsay). Ranked alongside the more eye-catching pastel drawings of his ballet dancers - see, for instance, The Ballet Class (1871-4) - this set of unsentimental and unglamorous nudes reinforces Degas' reputation as the greatest exponent of figure painting of the 19th century.
The subject of a woman arranging her hair is a common one with Degas. It precedes the series of Women at their Toilette, and has a sharper realism. Here the centre of interest is that admirable diagonal plane due to the long hair of a reddish-blonde colour. This 'auburn' tint was a refinement of the fashion of the day. The heroines of Edmond (1822-96) and Jules (1830-70) de Goncourt, Guy de Maupassant (1850-93), and Emile Zola (1840-1902) have hair of this colour. Degas himself was extra sensitive to the beauty of hair. In a letter to his friend Rouart (1883) he describes the hair of a beautiful Venetian woman of long ago. This same splendid colour is also found in the portrait of a celebrated Venetian beauty, painted by Titian (Lady at her Toilette, in the Louvre).
As to the woman's face, it can hardly be seen. It was of no interest to Degas, who had no interest in personalities. He merely indicates it by an ear or a nose, all the rest is hidden in hair. The gesture of the hand as it combs, the undulating movement of the hair as it 'flows', are the motifs which attracted him, and which he hastened to portray in pastel.
In 1886, at the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition, Degas exhibited ten of these female nudes, each depicting a woman wholly absorbed in washing or grooming herself. His invasion of their dressing rooms was in order to capture the attitudes of the body in all its variety. As Degas himself explained: "It is the human animal preoccupied with itself, like a cat licking itself. Hitherto the nude has always been shown in poses which take an audience for granted. My women are simple creatures and honest too, and are concerned with nothing except their physical occupation." Despite the banality of the models and their mundane activities in the bathroom, Degas succeeds in endowing them with a dignity and solidity, comparable with the classicism of ancient antiquity and the aesthetics of the Italian Renaissance.
Degas returned time and time again to his favourite female poses, constantly experimenting with new methods. However, over time - although still focused on the morphology of his models - he became less interested in strict anatomical accuracy and more concerned about expressing emotion and feeling. During his final period, he added extra vigour to his bather compositions with strokes of charcoal. And as his eyesight deteriorated he came to rely increasingly on pastel drawings (of both his nudes and ballet dancers) to convey the rich flamboyance of their colours rather than the verisimilitude of the scene depicted.
His best-known masterpieces of women in the bathroom - which, as a whole, rank among the greatest genre paintings of the modern era - include the following:
- Crouching Woman seen from the Back
(1879) Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1882) by Manet.
at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) by Renoir.
Street; Rainy Day (1877) by Gustave Caillebotte.
Of the Boating Party (1880-1) by Renoir.
(1882) by John Singer Sargent.
at Asnieres (1883-4) by Georges Seurat.
For analysis of other Impressionist genre paintings, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART EDUCATION