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Art Review: Degas & the Nude

Peering into Women’s Private Places
Degas Re-envisions the Nude

Degas seated, beside a sculpture by Albert Bartholomé (c. 1895, gelatin silver print, 11¼″ x 16½″ [28.6 x 39.4 cm]). Musée d’Orsay. Photo © Musée d’Orsay/rmn. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Stepping into the subdued lighting of the brown-walled first gallery of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ comprehensive exhibit, Degas and the Nude, the visitor noticed on the far side the artist’s early foray into the high-prestige genre of history painting, Young Spartans Exercising [2] (1860-62).  A supporting cast of student academies and preparatory drawings adorned the walls around it.

Steeped in the classical tradition, counseled by Ingres when seeking his advice to “[d]raw lines, young man…whether from memory or after nature,”1 apprenticed to the masters on display at the Louvre where he copied almost daily, enrolled in classes where he drew from the nude, and by age 22 ensconced in Italy for three years of onsite study, Hilaire-Germaine-Edgar Degas began his career with a deep respect and natural talent for rendering the details of his observed world.

Upon landing in Naples in 1856, the young artist assumed a humble attitude in relationship to the antique and Renaissance masters he was determined to study; he wrote in his diary, “…I get it into my head that I know nothing at all.  That is the only way to go forward.”2

Several highly resolved drawings in this first of the exhibit’s nine themed rooms speak to the young artist’s delight in describing through line and shading the intricacies of the human form.  In the penciled Standing Male Nude (1856-58), the model strikes a pose similar to that of the classical Greek sculpture Apoxyomenos [3], depicting an athlete scraping oil off his body following an athletic competition.  Here and in Study of a Male Nude from the same period, Degas used pencil/graphite to sensitively render true-to-life details of bone and muscle, and to describe the individual character of each male model to the level of portraiture.

Apparent in many of the displayed drawings from Degas’ sojourn in Italy (images of which were unavailable), the artist’s intense visual engagement with his subjects demonstrated his patience and discipline, and also suggested his profound enjoyment of the very act of seeing.

Scene of War in the Middle Ages (1863-65, oil on paper, 337/16″ x 57″ [85 x 147 cm]). Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Photo © Musée d’Orsay/rmn. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In the second gallery, themed The Body in Peril, an array of drawings related to the painting Scene of War in the Middle Ages (1863-65) introduced Degas’s fascination with the vulnerability of women’s bodies and his total lack of interest in their faces, almost always obscured.

One in particular, Nude Woman Lying on Her Back, Study for Scene of War in the Middle Ages (1863-65), drawn in black chalk, exemplifies the artist’s command of his medium.  Using parallel chalk marks, he emphasizes the elongation of the injured/dead victim in a pose that exposes her defenselessness.  In the painting she lies on the mound of earth in the lower left corner.

Interior (c. 1868-1869, oil on canvas, 32″ x 45″ [81.3 x 114.3 cm]). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In the same gallery and accompanied by perhaps only one relevant study, hangs the tension-filled Interior (c. 1868-1869), a masterpiece of narrative art.  The scene takes place in a dimly lit room where a woman sits hunched over on the left, facing away from a man who leans with his back against a door on the far right.  Toward the center, the only visible sources of light–a background lamp and a glowing fireplace–illuminate her white dress, bare shoulder and the bottom corner of her turned-away face.  Despite his cast shadow behind him, he seems shrouded in darkness.

Following from left to right, the viewer discovers:  a heavy brown garment on her lap on which she rests her left arm; a table on which sits a scissor, some lace and a hinged wooden box opened to reveal its brightly lit, blood-red lining–with a piece of white cloth hanging over its edge; on the floor nearby, a white camisole, perhaps the recent object of some mending; and on the bed, a woman’s ribboned bonnet near a coat draped over the bed’s foot grill.  A man’s top hat occupies the surface of the dresser in the background just to her right, on a level with her head so as not to be missed.

He glares at her.  She brings her right hand to her face and presses it against her mouth.  A mirror on the far wall reflects the lamp and the part of the interior within which the viewer stands.  Three framed pictures adorn the walls.

Although some have called the painting The Rape, Degas reportedly described it as a “family portrait,”3 implying a married couple, siblings, or even father and daughter since the age of the woman is indeterminable.  Whatever the precipitant, her posture suggests recovery from a slap, his hat on the dresser that he’s been there for a while, the items on the table and floor that she was interrupted abruptly while sewing, and her bonnet on the bed that she’s not been in the room very long.  Great narratives leave room for myriad interpretations and visitors are welcome to invent their own.

With Interior, Degas crystallized his fascination with women in their unguarded moments.  Whether observing them backstage at the ballet, intruding into their private quarters in brothels or watching them at their toilette, Degas barely managed to camouflage his voyeurism behind the respectable subject of the classical nude.

Degas and the Nude visually documents that particular obsession yet fails to take into account an even more significant development, one that was to have a profound impact on the artist’s subsequent work.  By the late 1870s, when Degas produced his brothel monotypes, showcased in the next gallery–The Body Exploited, the intensity with which he could regard his world was already compromised by failing vision.

Tracing those visual difficulties back to his military service in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, Degas attributed his sensitivity to light to the cold weather he endured there and to the bright sunlight of New Orleans, where in 1872 he visited family and did some painting.  In a letter he sent to a friend from the states, he complained, “What lovely things I could have done, and done rapidly if the bright daylight were less unbearable for me.  To go to Louisiana to open one’s eyes, I cannot do that.  And yet I kept them sufficiently half open to see my fill”4 and to successfully complete The Cotton Office, New Orleans [6].

Despite his belief that he would eventually go blind, Degas continued to draw and paint and, when he got back to Paris, gravitated toward the comfortable darkness of the ballet and opera.  By 1890 (at age 56) he was complaining to some friends, “I can no longer read.  My maid reads me the paper.”5 Troubled by glare, he also had problems “establishing outlines ”6 and identifying colors, and suffered a loss of central vision.7 In an exhibit where much was made of Degas’s pioneering late work, to omit consideration of this critical variable minimized the artist’s heroic achievements.

The research assistant working with curator George T. M. Shackelford (no longer with the museum), explained this curatorial decision: “…we do not have a clear sense of how much he was impacted by this problem.  There are some anecdotes [that] relate that Degas would complain of his inability to see one moment, and then the next [be] looking at his watch to get the time.  Perhaps because of this lack of quantifiable information about his loss of/or impaired sight the curator decided that it was not a point he wished to make.”8

Ambrose Vollard thought the same and insisted in his Degas: An Intimate Portrait that the artist, “…used to pretend to be more blind than he was in order to not recognize people he wanted to avoid…Immediately after such a refusal, Degas took out his watch and said, without the slightest hesitation, ‘It’s a quarter past two.’”9

The statements of both the curator and Vollard “…reflect the simplistic view that vision is all about acuity and little more.”10 But such a dichotomy is “…not at all inconsistent [with] serious central vision loss.”11 “The fine details of a person’s face…would not have been clear to a person affected by central retinal disease…However, a watch face with large, dark hands [on] a light-colored background would have been easily seen…It’s image spread out broadly on the retina.”12

Dealing with the question of Degas’s vision would surely have demanded a rethinking of his late work, perhaps an undertaking beyond the scope of the exhibit.  But including it would have enhanced visitors’ appreciation of his artwork and opened up scholarly discussion on the impact of artists’ visual problems on their work.

In the mid-1870s Degas produced his brothel monotypes, a striking departure from his early classical work.  His decision to hang out in rooms where women commodified their bodies represented a natural extension of his curiosity about their intimate spaces and men’s intrusion into them.  The dramatic change in drawing style–including the use of monotypes–might have been determined by the nature of his subject matter (hardly academic) but perhaps was also dictated by his decrease in visual acuity.

As risqué as the now extant images can be, even more pornographic versions never made their way to daylight, probably destroyed at the time of Degas’s death.13 In the brothel pictures, any façade of respectability has been giddily discarded by the artist, as he pokes his nose into all kinds of places, wryly commenting on the other men who join him there.

The Serious Client (1876-77, monotype on wove paper, 53¼″ x 47½″ [135.3 x 120.7 cm]), National Gallery of Canada. Photo © National Gallery of Canada. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In The Serious Client (1876-77), a prostitute’s hand clasps that of the customer atop his phallic cane as four ordinary-looking women entice him to sample their wares.  Here Degas’s particular fascination with derrieres crops up–in the back view of the woman reaching across the divide and in the mirror’s reflection of two globes hanging from the ceiling.  The technique has a cartoonish quality, reminiscent of Honoré Daumier’s graphics.

Nude Woman Combing Her Hair (1877-1880, pastel over monotype in black ink on paper, 127/16″ x 815/16″ [31.6 x 22.7 cm]). Photo © Musée d’Orsay/rmn. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The attention to detail that Degas lavished on the pastel-colored monotype Nude Woman Combing Her Hair (1877-1880)–bottles on the sink shelf; hairbrush, basin and pitcher on the counter; open draw in the cabinet; towel over the back of the chair; and colorful fabric patterns–leads one to wonder about the effect it would have had were this petite print realized as a grand painting.  In its current form it reads as an inside joke to anyone familiar with prostitutes’ tales of their johns; rendered large it would have become a scathing commentary.

Performing an activity suggestive of a peri-sexual moment, the stocking-clad woman, with her back to the viewer, combs her hair for the benefit of the business-suited man who leans back and casts a wide-eyed, glazed expression in her direction.  His left hand grips either a pouch of coins (payment for imminent pleasures) or an ice pack (cooling for his ardor).  Whichever, the position of his hand on the neck of the bag strongly suggests masturbation.

Degas continued to create monotypes, narrowing his focus to women at their toilette and experimenting with inky interiors.  These prints, displayed in the next room, The Body Observed, date from the late 1870s to early 1880s.  In another section, Bodies in Motion: Degas and the Dancer, sculptures and sketches demonstrated Degas’s penchant for awkward, off-balance poses that border on model torture.  The gallery contained numerous bronzes, all cast after Degas died, and drawings that spanned a couple of decades.

From this point on (mid-1880s to late 1890s), though each room carried theme names, the art appeared in mostly chronological order.  Consisting primarily of works on paper and an occasional painting, the later galleries reflected Degas’s reliance on pastels as he continued his pursuit of women in their intimate quarters.  As his eyesight grew worse, he devised new ways to keep working.  When he could no longer see his subjects, he traced much earlier pieces and reconfigured them with bold outlines and dramatic colors.

La Toilette (1884-86, pastel over monotype laid down on board, 13″ x 117/16″ [33 x 29 cm]). Private collection.
Woman Leaving Her Bath (c. 1886, pastel over monotype, 1013/16″ x 1415/16″ [27.5 x 38 cm]). Private collection.

In both La Toilette (1884-86) and Woman Leaving  Her Bath (c. 1886), Degas comes upon his subject from behind, catching her unaware as she engages in her ablutions.  In the latter image, she has just grabbed hold of her towel and seems about to stand up, fixed in a precarious position she cannot hold much longer.  Degas brilliantly exploits the chromatic power of pastels, juxtaposing cool blues against fiery red-oranges and yellows, and revels in the cacophony of patterns on the wall and in the drapery.

The black and grey outlines in both pictures result from Degas’s technique of pulling a second print from the inked monotype plate, producing a muted echo of the original print to which he could then apply color.  Because of their manner of creation, monotypes can’t deliver the same level of detail as engraving or etching–a suitable choice for an artist no longer able to discern them.

Instead of the delineation of form through line and shading that captivated him in his youth, Degas now lavished his talent on developing all manner of pastel marks and on experimenting with novel combinations of colors, especially apparent in La Toilette in the blue squiggles adorning the yellow drapes to the right of the figure, the touches of blue in the basin and pitcher before her, and the thick white highlight in the red-filled glass jar on the shelf to the left of her head.

The Tub (1886, pastel, 23⅝″ x 3211/16″ [60 x 83 cm]). Musée d’Orsay.

In The Tub (1886), Degas retained the black outline of his monotypes in a pure pastel drawing.  In a tour de force of composition, the artist contrasted the ovoid tub with the rectangular shelf, mirrored the curve of the bather’s body in the copper and porcelain pitchers on the ledge, and directed the viewer’s attention to the woman’s butt with an orange-handled brush and a white highlight in the tub.

Despite his early years of perfect-pitch nude studies, in The Tub Degas’s anatomical knowledge deserts him.  Perhaps he took artistic license for the sake of its effect or maybe the poor model just couldn’t hold the pose long enough for him to work things out, but there’s something awry in the lower portion of her body and in the position of her feet.  Nonetheless, in the arena of color, he excelled with his coppery reds, golden oranges and bright aqua blues.

After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Neck (1895-98, pastel on wove paper, 247/16″ x 259/16″ [62 x 65 cm]), Musée d’Orsay.

Under the rubric The Body Transformed: Degas’s Late Years, which grouped together work from the mid-1880s to the late 1890s, After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Neck (1895-98) epitomizes the artist’s ingenious adjustments to his encroaching blindness.  That he could barely see by that time was common knowledge among close associates like Daniel Halévy who noted in his diary entry of November 4, 1895, after accompanying Degas to an art auction, “…he couldn’t even see the pictures he bought…He would lean over to his neighbors and ask, ‘Is it beautiful?’”14 At the same time, Degas could churn out dazzling pastels like this one.

One of many pictures–charcoal and/or pastel–where fly-on-the-wall Degas eyes a woman from behind as she sits on the edge of a tub, leans forward and towels herself, After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Neck arranges a riot of colors and strokes into vertical stripes of decorative wall panels relieved by the diagonal line of the tub and, going in the opposite direction, a patch of floor.  The bather, centrally located, leans toward the left.

Close examination of the drawing’s surface reveals the inventiveness of Degas’s strokes.  The variety of lines, splotches, hatch marks and masses of color also imply a physicality and tactility in pastel application, perhaps evolving as a substitute for the artist’s lost vision.  Ever the colorist, Degas added notes of cool blue to the woman’s auburn hair and to the red shadows of her back.  A hint of warm yellow in the lower right sets off the steel grey of the tub while a hot orange throw enlivens the blue patterned chaise longue and reverberates where the form turns around the shaded edge.

One comes away from a visit to Degas and the Nude with a sense that the artist, feeling locked out of women’s private worlds, entered through a side door of artistic intent.  By posing women with their backs to him, Degas eluded their scrutiny and spied on their naked bodies with complete impunity.  When gradual loss of vision threatened to interfere with these personal pleasures, he enlisted the power of his creative genius and gifted the world with a beautiful new art.
1 Daniel Halévy, My Friend Degas, trans. & ed., Mina Curtiss, from Degas Parles (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1964), 50.

2 Anne Roquebert, “The Classical Body: Degas’s Beginnings” in Degas and the Nude (Boston: MFA Publications, 2011), 18.

3 Roquebert, “The Body in Peril” in Degas and the Nude, 62.

4 Eliana Coldham, et al, “Degas’ [sic] Visual Disorder: Retinopathy,” Art, Vision and the Disordered Eye (Vision & Aging Lab-Pace Program, Department of Psychology, University of Calgary, 2002).  <http://www.psych.ucalgary.ca/pace/va-lab/avde-website/degas.html [13]>

5 Halévy, 41.

6 Halévy, 22.

7 Coldham, et al.

8 Email from Katharine Mohana, Public Relations, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, January 30, 2012.

9 Quoted in Michael Marmor and James Ravin, The Artist’s Eyes: Vision and the History of Art (New York:Abrams, 2009), 191.  Thanks to Donald Kline (see note 10) for providing this reference.

10 Email from Donald Kline, Vision & Aging Lab, Departments of Psychology & Surgery (Ophthalmology), University of Calgary, February 22, 2012.

11 Ibid.

12 Marmor and Ravin, The Artist’s Eyes, 191.

13 Xavier Rey, “The Body Exploited: Degas’s Brothel Works in Degas and the Nude, 40.

14 Halévy, 69.

Degas and the Nude [14]
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston [15]
Avenue of the Arts
465 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115

Musée d’Orsay [16]
62, rue de Lille
75343 Paris Cedex 07
+33 (0)1 40 49 48 14
Now until July 1, 2012.

Catalog available.