At the last Impressionist show in Paris (1886) Edgar Degas exhibited his pastel drawings. He called them ‘A Series of Nudes of Women That Bathe, Dry Themselves, Comb Their Hair or Have It Combed.’
The public was shocked. One critic spoke of “misogyny cruelly aimed at the female body.” Another saw a “particular accent of hate and disdain.” The women looked like animals preening themselves. Where was feminine beauty? Where was feminine dignity? Did M. Degas find his shameless models at a brothel?
“No,” answered Degas, “my women are simple people, honest ones, who do nothing more than care for their bodies.”
They were poses and attitudes a woman assumes during her toilette, and they seemed to be caught without her knowing it—“as if seen through a keyhole,” Degas said.
He didn’t look through a keyhole to draw them, however. He brought to his atelier armchairs, washing basins, and bathtubs and made his models pose again and again following his precise orders while he made his notes. The poses may seem to be the hurried catching of a moment, like a camera snap-shot, but that is not the way they were drawn.
The Impressionists were famous for taking their paints and easel outdoors to try to catch a single moment of daylight. Degas didn’t go outdoors. He made fun of Renoir and Monet for doing that. He believed “catching the moment” was the false look the finished picture gave, not the working method. To get that look he made dozens of sketches, copying from models and then from memory. And he thought and thought about his picture. “What I do is the fruit of reflexion and study,” he said. “I don’t know anything about inspiration, spontaneity, and temperament.”
He had been experimenting with a look of stopped motion for years, originally in his paintings of dancers. From photography, which was new in his time, he learned the effectiveness of an unusual viewpoint. The caught moment is twice so if the viewer seems to be caught too—that is, if a figure in her thoughtless or unself-conscious pose is shown from an angle or distance that the accidental viewer or the voyeur might take. He opens the door and finds the woman just this way, in a corner of the room perhaps, or below him on the bed, at the moment she is combing her hair or drying herself after her bath and before she looks up and sees him.
Woman Washing Herself in a Tub Paris, Louvre (public domain photo)
One of the results of this innovation of Degas’ is that the women seem cold. They might as well be animals—there is no sweetness, no heart to them. Some women who saw the drawings at the Impressionist exhibition declared them “obscene”. “On the contrary,” wrote a critic of the time, “if ever there were works that were not obscene; if ever there were works without second intentions and without malice, works decidedly chaste, they are precisely these. They even glorify a disdain for the flesh as no artist has dared to do it since the Middle Ages.” J. K. Huysmans, 1889
Are they ugly then? Not at all. In their treatment of the feminine body they gain in truth what they lose in idealization. And the supposedly despised flesh becomes a radiant tapestry of color and life. A beautiful light shines on them and on the room, the carpets and the cloth-covered walls, the copper wash basins and the pearl-handled combs. They all seem to glow with color.
Le Tub Farmington, Hill-Stead Museum (public domain photo)
There is one more trick to Degas’ look of spontaneity and immediacy: his pastel drawing itself, almost every stroke of which can be seen and admired. It seems easy to imagine how the picture was constructed, stroke by stroke, and the figure assembled with colors, like the image of a kaleidoscope. It comes into view suddenly, lasts while we look; and with a turn of the cylinder it will be gone, its parts dispersed: it was only the image of a moment.
Woman Drying her Neck Louvre, Paris (public domain photo)