Where Edgar Degas lived and worked in the Pigalle area of Montmartre
Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917) was from a rich Parisian family which had made its money in banking. The family had connections in Italy.
Degas was never a struggling artist economically and always chose his own independent path artistically.
He was thoroughly grounded in art history. He knew and admired the Old Masters and was well schooled in all the traditional art techniques such as draughtsmanship, line, perspective and modelling. As a young artist he spent much time in the Louvre where he met Manet.
Degas travelled extensively especially in Italy, works he saw there, and of course in the Louvre, from the Classical, Hellenistic and Renaissance eras influenced the rest of his artistic career. Degas wished to be seen as an artist of modern life working within a solid classically influenced tradition.
“Solitary and uncompromising…”
Degas, though not unsociable, was, according to Sandra Orienti, “solitary and uncompromising…” He was also witty and ironic.
He was said to be obsessive; we see him returning to the same subjects again and again. His single-mindedness spilled over into his choice of apartments; during his working life he never moved out of the Pigalle area and he worked for decades. He was active from the 1850s to the early years of the 20th century.
Like many artists of his day he was frustrated by the entrenched conservatism of the Salon and the arts establishment in Paris. For this reason, in 1873, along with other artists whose works were consistently rejected by the Salon such as Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Morisot and Cézanne, he helped found an independent company of artists. Together they would organise their own arts shows in direct competition with the Salon.
This group came to be known as the Impressionists and its first show was in 1874. Whilst he helped found the group, Degas never considered himself an Impressionist. He described himself as a realist or an independent.
Degas’ subjects: ballerina dancers, nude women bathers and horses
Degas’ principle subjects were ballerina dancers from the Paris Opera, nude women bathers and horses.
I will look at a limited but representative selection of his works and link address to painting. An easier way of linking place and painting is to look at the Degas infographic. You are welcome to download this, but if you reuse it please attribute the source or link or give the site a mention on any social media that you are connected to.
Degas’ artistic objectives
Degas considered himself a realist or an independent as we have seen. He is reported as saying to his Impressionist colleagues ‘You need natural life, I need artificial life’.
By artificial life he probably meant an urban setting and more specifically the entertainment scene and street life of Paris and Montmartre. Degas was interested in documenting, stilling and capturing the ephemera of what was all around him and more particularly modernity and its associated urban leisure activities.
Whilst being thoroughly grounded in a traditional artistic academic education, Degas was prepared to explore and exploit modern techniques such as developments in photography and monotype printing and reference any contemporary ideas he considered might suit his purpose.
Degas may have had a reputation for arrogance but he was open to novelty and innovation in art. Like many other leading artists of his time, he was intrigued by Japanese prints.
He paid particular attention to the way Japanese artists sometimes cropped or allowed parts of subjects to be left out of the canvas. He also noted how sometimes the main subject was not always presented front and centre but appeared to be caught entering or leaving the scene.
Degas executed many small scale wax sculptures in his endless and relentless quest to represent and capture movement. The sculpture informed his paintings and the paintings talked to the sculpture in a restless, unending, inconclusive dialogue in Degas’ mind. Degas mastered oils, watercolour and essence before settling on pastel as his medium of choice.
Early Degas works
The self-portrait in the Orsay Museum from 1855 is from a little before his residency in Pigalle but reveals a serious, sullen young man. He has a condescending air and he is wasting no time applying himself to his work.
Degas lived and worked at 13 Rue Victor Massé (point 17 on the map) from 1859 – 1872.
He travelled extensively during this period with long stays in Italy where he had family ties. He painted his aunt and uncle in Florence. Sketches and studies were done in Italy but the work was finished in Paris in 1862 and so can be associated with point 17.
In the Bellelli Family, we see a stiff, distant, taught and severe family portrait that perhaps gives us clues into Degas’ dry, rigid and cool character. The painting can be seen in the Orsay Museum in Paris. Earlier still from 1860 is Young Spartans Exercising in the National Gallery in London.
The new sport of horse racing in Paris
The redevelopment of Paris had brought horse racing onto the Parisian social scene. The newly opened hippodrome at Longchamp in the Bois de Boulogne was a popular event with Parisians.
For Degas it meant being able to study the raw animal power of the horses and the attractive clashing colours of the jockey’s silks.
It was perhaps with the nervous fidgeting energy of the horses, their movement and the constant weaving patterns of jockey’s silks as the horses milled about that Degas began to consider how best to capture the instant of movement on canvas.
Those moving patterns of colour formed by the jockeying of the jockeys may also have led him to begin to consider the possibilities of building an image from shifting forms of colour.
The At the Races, the Start, in the Fogg Art Museum, from 1860-62 shows us some racehorses straining to get going at a race and the jockey’s silks caught in a pool of light.
Race Horses in Front of the Stands in the Orsay Museum, Paris is from about 1866-1868.
The work is in essence; oil paint thinned with petroleum. The thinner paint helps to suggest a milky pale light as the sunlight floods through a veil of thin high cloud. It bathes the ever irregular, individualistic and restless horses, the jockeys and the spectators with diffused white sunlight.
In the distance one of the jockeys has lost control of a horse, whilst a smoking factory chimney reassures Degas that he is not far from the city.
A Woman Seated by a Vase of Flowers
A Woman Seated by a Vase of Flowers from 1865 in the Metropolitan Museum in New York shows a huge vase full of flowers and to the right of the picture a woman gazing pensively out of the picture, her hand drawn up to her cheek. The woman appears absent and a part of her body is cropped, Japanese style, by the frame of the picture.
The image of absence or distraction looks ahead to the In a Café aka Absinthe picture of 1876 which I describe at point 4 the Nouvelle Athenes Café. The flowers in the Woman Seated by a Vase of Flowers painting are beautiful and abundant but will soon fade; she too is young.
The Opera Orchestra, also to be associated with point 17, in the Orsay Museum, is from 1870. It shows a musician friend of Degas, Désiré Dihau the bassoonist, who features prominently at the front of the picture.
Degas has set out to make all of the orchestra members recognisable and relegates what was to become one of his most important artistic themes, the dancers at the opera, to the back of the scene. We see the girls’ legs and dresses vividly lit by the gas footlights but their heads are cropped out.
If you look closely to the left at the top of the frame a spectator/voyeur can be seen contemplating the dancers legs.
Degas and the Paris Opera
Degas was to return to the subject of the opera and more particularly to the dancers throughout his long career. He could not get enough of the Paris Opera, so what was it that drew him back again and again?
- A musical spectacle – Degas loved music
- Close similarities between the performance which required much preparation and rehearsal and painting which also required studies, sketches and a plan of action
- An artificial constructed artistic environment specialising in illusion and lighting effects offering new possibilities of representation
- A microsociety where Degas could closely observe the ballerinas’ every mood and movement
- A reflection of wider society in the attitudes of the male subscribers (who had access to prowl the backstage area) and the dancers
- An environment which confirmed his social status and helped him approach his artistic ambition of translating movement, balance and rhythm to the canvas.
- The similarity between the posed sculptural formality of dance and the classical painting tradition
- “Once I have a line, I hold onto it, I never let it go” – Degas
The Dance Foyer at the Opera from 1872 in the Orsay Museum would have been one of the last paintings executed at point 17.
It shows an austere classical almost monochromatic setting as the dancers repeat their moves. The atmosphere is serious. Degas chooses an unusual sweeping diagonal perspective and by opening doors and looking through the arch suggests that the rehearsals and exacting exercises are going on in other rooms too.
This is the old Paris Opera in Rue Le Peletier which burnt down in 1873. The famous Paris Opera we see now dates from 1875.
In 1872/3 Degas moved from point 17 in Rue Victor Massé to point 7, 77 Rue Blanche. He was to stay here until 1876.
Degas helps found the Impressionist exhibitions
Degas was a founding member of the organisation of artists who had their works regularly rejected by the Salon and eventually became known as the Impressionists.
Degas did not paint in the Impressionist style and did not count himself as part of the club, he preferred to pursue his own path. He was, however, interested in changing the conservative Paris arts scene. It was in this building that he helped to organise the first Impressionist exhibition which took place in 1874 in Boulevard de Capucines.
During the 1870s Degas really concentrated on the opera ballerinas. When Edmond de Goncourt the writer, essayist and critic called on Degas at this address he was amused to see the sober Degas get so carried away by his enthusiasm for the dancers movements and poses that he began to physically mimic them himself.
Degas was certainly very seriously interested in translating movement in space onto the flat surface of a canvas, but in this case he was most probably playing with de Goncourt and perhaps even angling for some free publicity.
The Dance Class
The Dance Class from about 1873 is again set in Rue Le Peletier.
Degas has once again set up a diagonal, sweeping view of the scene. We are getting an ‘as it happens’ glimpse of the scene as though we have just walked in on an informal visit.
We see the dancers strewn around the dancing instructor, an elderly gentleman with a large stick. Whilst the baton is nominally to beat out the rhythm of the dance, it is also hefty enough to posses an air of menace; if the girls get it wrong perhaps they will get a prod or even be struck.
The dancers themselves look for the most part tired or disinterested by the class. The one closest to us gives a dirty look from behind her fan to someone on the other side of the room, the girl sitting on the piano is stretching her neck and scratching her back at the same time, others are sitting, adjusting their costumes, an earring or hair.
Beyond the dancers through a marble framed doorway we see a window and daylight.
These girls, because many of them came from humble origins, were often labelled as ‘opera rats’ by the bourgeois critics and clientele who went to see them perform.
What we see here in this and other Degas depictions of ballet exercises and rehearsal is a punishing and exhausting regime of relentless work. Given the prejudices of the time, this could be aimed at disciplining and curbing the perceived turbulence and excessive energy of the uncultured lower orders of society from which many of the ‘rats’ came. (See the Bourgeois Men and Working Women page for more on social forces and cultural expectations).
The Rehearsal of the Ballet on Stage 1874 in the Orsay was exhibited in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874.
Degas has chosen to show the scene almost in black and white. He is emphasising the artificial effect of the overpowering stage lights which wash out all other colour.
Two sets of dancers are featured: those in the foreground who are waiting to come into the dance; they stretch, adjust their costumes, tie up a ballet slipper, yawn, scratch and rehearse moves around a bench.
On the other side of the stage the girls move lightly and in harmony. Two ballerinas are performing, executing perfectly their moves. So on one side the girls are left to their own devices and form a group of individuals doing whatever they like and on the other the harmony, cohesion and discipline of the ballet.
Two Dancers on a Stage
The much more colourful Two Dancers on a Stage from 1874 shows us a couple of working class dancers.
This painting is in the Courtauld Institute in London. The Courtauld website points out that Degas was interested in physiognomy and that the fashionable physiologists of the day attempted to link physical characteristics to character and social class.
The unclassical features of the girls, if we accept the ideas (or rather prejudices) of the time, show us unrefined ‘opera rats’ as they were known then.
We see them from an elevated viewpoint as though present in the Paris Opera in a box. The figures are painted to the right of the frame as though just entering or as though they have just caught our attention.
The unusual framing is probably an acknowledgement of Japanese print techniques (see above). In the background we see some very loose brushwork which evokes foliage or trees. Freeing colour from form was an important feature of Degas’ later work as we will see further along in the walk.
Please refer to point 4, the Nouvelle Athènes café for a description of one of Degas’ most famous studies of a couple in a café under the influence of alcohol which is his In a Café aka Absinthe from 1876.
Degas on the move again
By 1876 Degas was on the move again, moving for a short time to 4 Rue Frochot which is point 14 on the map. Because the dates overlap it is a little unclear as to whether the In a Café aka Absinthe was painted here or point 7. I have situated it at point 7.
Also from about 1876 – 77 and so probably to be associated with point 14 we have Café Concert at the Ambassadeurs in Lyon.
The Café Concert at the Ambassadeurs pastel and monotype places us in the stalls; there are ladies hats, top hats and bowler hats, the head of a double bass rears up from the musicians. The performers on stage are brilliantly lit, their bright stage clothes contrasting with the shadow of audience and musicians.
Toulouse-Lautrec admired Degas and I believe he picked up on two details of the Degas picture. These references are are:
Toulouse-Lautrec may also have been influenced by the representation of the hovering gas lights in the Degas picture. He took the idea and updated it, (as a series of hovering electric lights), in a more stylised and abbreviated form in his most famous and celebrated work, Moulin Rouge: La Goulue.
This painting may have been done at point 14 but because Degas only stayed here for about a year it may also have been executed in Rue Lepic where Degas was present from 1877-78/9. I deal with this address in the upper Montmartre walk, point 12.
Degas was certainly very busy between 1876 – 1878 the period between point 14 and point 12 on the upper Montmartre walk. He was working on his favourite themes of dancers, café concert singers, some portraits and horses.
You may be interested in an ongoing online catalogue which chronologically documents Degas’ works including those of this period. I also pick some out on the Degas’ Studios and Apartments infographic.
19 Rue Pierre Fontaine – point 10
We next catch up with Degas at point 10 where he was present from c1878 – 82. There is a metal information panel put up by the Mayor of Paris in front of number 19 Rue Pierre Fontaine. 19 Rue Pierre Fontaine is also a Toulouse-Lautrec site.
Degas’ studio was in the courtyard behind these doors; he lived on the fifth floor. It was here, at the occasion of the sixth Impressionists show in 1881, that Degas showed the one and the only sculpture that he ever publicly exhibited. This was the Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer.
Before we look at this work, (remember Degas was productive and I’m only looking at a selection of his output), let’s take time to glance at another remarkable painting.
Miss La La
Miss La La at the Circus Fernando in the National Gallery in London is Degas’ unique circus piece. It dates from 1879 and would have been painted here.
The action is taking place high up above the ring among the gaudy stucco decorations and supporting wrought iron roof beams of the Montmartre circus. Miss La La is suspended from a rope, and, as her outstretched arms demonstrate, her only contact with the rope is through her teeth.
The figure looms above the audience’s heads. We are looking up. Degas has used foreshortening to show that Miss La La is performing overhead, way up near the roof. The fact that Degas has placed her image to one side of the canvas allows us to admire the architecture of the roof and to contemplate her position: a lone performer in a precarious and perilous position suspended by her teeth with nothing else around her but thin air.
The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer
Marie van Goethem was an adolescent opera dancer who lived close to Degas; they were virtually neighbours. Degas regularly invited her to this studio to sit for him. The result is the bronze copy of the originally wax sculpture of about three feet in height to be seen in various museums including the Orsay Museum in Paris. The bronze copies were cast in the 1920s after Degas’ death.
Degas showed the original wax calling it the Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer at the sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881.
Degas has portrayed his little dancer in a rigid, somewhat tortured ballet pose: her arms are flexed behind her back, her head is lifted looking up and her feet are splayed, her young legs are thus locked in an unnatural and tense pose.
Her body looks as though it should be aching with tension yet her expression seems unperturbed, even a little defiant. Degas has not portrayed her as an unreal or refined beauty. We can see some pride in her mastery of a difficult and contorted pose.
Degas has taken the unusual step of clothing his model: she has real hair, a ribbon, a tutu and dance slippers. Opinions vary on his motives; was Degas searching for a new kind of realism? Did he feel a responsibility towards Marie and wish to protect her modesty? Did he wish to simply realistically depict her as a professional poised dancer? In the unnatural pose, was he criticising the too rigid ballet training regime for turning Marie into a kind of lifeless doll ballerina? Had he been spending too much time in the studio and lost the plot a little?
Some critics appreciated the realism and modernity of the work. Others preferred to hide in the prejudices that they were comfortable with and chastised Degas for depicting some vicious little riff-raff opera rat who had degeneracy written all over her face. Evolutionary theory, in their eyes, had legitimised the natural hierarchy of society and the critics would have seen themselves near the apex.
It is possible that it was Marie’s expression of defiance and quiet pride that they did not like. She had shown that through hard work and application it was possible to change and progress, defying the social theorists who helped to maintain the conservative order.
The first and last public showing of a work of sculpture
Degas probably had little time for fools but he did not like public ridicule either. He felt exposed by the criticism. This was his first and last public showing of a work of sculpture. He took his little dancer back to his studio and it was never seen in public again during his lifetime.
It did not stop Degas working and experimenting with sculpture though, in 1890 the Irish writer and painter George Moore saw “many decaying statues” when he called on Degas.
Degas continued to use his three dimensional notes to bring sculptural solidity and presence to his painted figures. With sculpture he could explore a figure in three dimensions on the very point of balance, frozen in a moment of precarious stability.
His painting influenced the sculpture and the sculpted figures replied in a never ending fruitful dialogue. Degas was in fact so caught up in the dialogue that it appears to have slipped out of his control. On his death in 1917 in his last address about 150 figurines were found, some falling to bits others “almost reduced to dust” as the art dealer Joseph Durand-Ruel noted.
Some other notable works to be associated with this address would be the portrait of his friend Edmond Duranty in his library in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow, The Star at the Art Institute of Chicago or his Dancer in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.
21 Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle
By 1886 we find that Degas has moved again but never too far from the Pigalle or lower Montmartre area. His new address is 21 Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle and he was here from 1882 – 1890.
This address does not feature on the circuit; it would mean walking down Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle and then retracing your steps. It is easy enough to do and if you wish you can do so. Instead of turning right after point 12 you would cross over Rue Pierre Fontaine and carry on straight down Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle to number 21. See the arrow indication on Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle after point 12. Don’t forget to turn around and get back on track with the walk though.
Whilst remaining interested by the ballet dancers, their poses, contortions, exercises and moments of rest and recreation, Degas now turned his attention to revisiting the most traditional of subjects in art: the nude.
Ingres, who Degas admired, had in the 1860s, produced an erotic fantasy piece called The Turkish Bath. There are many erotic reclining Venus figures from the 16th century Venetian Titian onwards. Degas, of course, did the female nude his way.
In 1886 at the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition Degas announced that he would present a suite of nude women, “bathing, washing, drying and rubbing themselves dry, combing their hair or having their hair combed”.
The Louvre Crouching Aphrodite
The idea of a single figure bathing may have been seeded in Degas’ mind when, as a young artist, he visited the Louvre and would have surely viewed, and probably sketched, the Crouching Aphrodite sculpture there.
This is a Roman copy variant of the famous first nude female statue in classical art, the Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles dating from the fourth century BC. The original was standing and in the round so that its many admirers could view her from all sides.
The eroticism came from the fact that Aphrodite appeared to have been surprised in the middle of bathing and makes some attempt to cover herself whilst reaching for a towel.
The same being disturbed by another presence scenario is being played out in the Louvre Crouching Aphrodite.
The crouching pose allows the sculptor to examine the voluptuous folds of the goddess’ torso, the smooth, milk white marble designing perfectly her generous and sensual curves. Whilst she is caught in an unusual position she is still graceful and poised. The work, like Praxiteles’ original, was meant to evoke an erotic response.
Traditional academic artists, (those whose works received the official seal of approval from the Salon), such as Alexandre Cabanel had famously painted the Birth of Venus which you can see in the Orsay Museum.
Degas’ modern realist Aphrodites
Degas came up with a different solution. He places his women in a banal natural situation: the act of washing, whether in a bath or a shallow tub. Instead of many figures as in the ballet pictures, Degas now zooms in on just one.
These are indoor bathroom pictures so there is less depth and the background tends to be genericised: a chair, a towel, perhaps some curtains or a screen for dressing, carpet and wallpaper.
Degas gets closer, concentrating on catching individual moments of movement. As Ruth Schenkel notes in the Helibrunn Timeline of Art History the women Degas shows us are “entirely without self-consciousness and emphatically not posed”.
The bathers are pragmatic notes of attitude and balance and, unlike the Aphrodite examples, are not meant to elicit an erotic response.
Degas himself described his artistic perspective for his bathers: it was as though they were viewed “through a keyhole” he is reported as saying.
Degas, as usual, was being ironic and playing with the innuendo of voyeurism but, in fact, he had not left anything to chance. Degas was not looking through a keyhole, he had set everything up almost as though on a stage set. He brought all the props, tubs, baths and armchairs to his studio and made his models repeat movements and hold long uncomfortable poses.
The result was a series of neutral, observational and unerotic studies of the female body in movement going about the routine task of washing and drying. Out of the long uncomfortable poses flowed a series of pictures of natural spontaneous movements.
Probably the most famous image of the series is The Tub in The Orsay Museum in Paris.
The pose of the woman squatting in a tub or shallow zinc basin recalls the Louvre Crouching Aphrodite.
The figure who is engaged in sponging the back of her neck is seen from above. We only see her back, flank and hair, her face is hidden. The elegant rounded jugs on the table close to the model reference her fluid volumes. Her physique has a sculptural solidity suggested by subtle pastel tones.
Degas is concentrating on physique, posture and movement and ignores the character or psychology of his subject. Unlike the Louvre Aphrodite, this bather is entirely unaware of a viewer and so there is no posing or reaction to another presence.
The tub is grey and uninviting, it looks as though there is only a very small amount of water for her to use. Blue patches of pastel on the floor tell us that some of the water has splashed out. It is the awkward and uncomfortable cramped pose that makes the picture work.
This is not a reclining classical nude from Greek mythology, this is a modest modern woman in a tub attending to her hygiene painted in the realist tradition. Degas shows that in reality bathing could be difficult and uncomfortable.
Many critics, however, did not like Degas’ version of reality and attacked this painting and the others in the series for unusual viewpoints and obscure poses. These were considered ugly and contorted. Showing a real, active naked woman in a tub instead of an allegorical female nude located in an imagined idealised past was still a little too radical for many of them.
Degas provoked the critics opinion further and helped to reinforce his reputation for misogyny by remarking that he was portraying women’s “animal” side.
Far from being savage, Degas has in fact given his figure a certain grace as she goes about the routine task of washing herself.
Highly original poses
The Naked Woman in a Tub in the Metropolitan Museum New York, from the same show amplifies the realism by presenting to the viewer the bathers bony pelvic region, a cold looking tub and the bathers effort to wash her feet.
The uncomfortable scene is mitigated a little by the large welcoming towel draped over the arms of the chair which is about to envelope the bather.
Two further examples of works from this the eighth and last Impressionist show of 1886 show us a Woman Drying Her Left Foot (in the Orsay Museum Paris) and a Woman Drying Her Foot (in the Metroplitan Museum of Art New York). The first portrays an unusual egg-like posture as the woman folds over on herself to reach her foot; the second an acrobatic diagonal composition as the model reaches for her foot which is supported by the lip of the bath.
Both of these works show highly original poses. They highlight the adaptability of the female physique which can transform itself into all sorts of interesting and unexpected forms. Both works also highlight the natural organic vitality of the subjects.
The starchy bourgeois Degas is observing, and perhaps admiring, the suppleness of his model’s limbs.
Degas drops out of the exhibition circuit
After the last Impressionist show Degas had no further set piece exhibitions. He did organise some small shows with his dealers but no longer exposed himself to the critical ridicule and humiliation that his public exhibitions attracted. As a result Degas’ work seems to have relaxed a bit. Without dropping realism he now accommodated much more sensuality when he returned to one of his favourite themes: the nude female bather.
Degas and feminine sensuality
The Woman Having Her Hair Combed from just after the last 1886 Impressionists show, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, represents an enormous contrast with, for example, the tub portraits.
Here we have escaped the awkward contortions of getting washed in a shallow cold tub with some tepid water and have moved into a warm comfortable environment.
The female subject is sitting on an oversized towel which is spread on a mustard coloured upholstered bench. Unusually, (because with Degas the viewpoint is normally from the back with the face hidden), we see a facing three-quarter nude view.
We see the subject’s face, she is looking up. She is having her long red hair combed by a maid whose head has been cropped. Here there is no bony physique; the subject has milky, silky skin and an elegant well-formed flowing physique.
As well as making this bather easy on the eye, Degas has added a very definite sensual touch: as her head is being tugged back by the maid’s efforts to comb her long hair, she braces herself, hand on hip and knees locked together. Her resistance to the force of the maid combing her hair is shown by her left hand digging into her fleshy side.
Staying in the Metropolitan Museum the Woman Combing Her Hair painted between 1888-90 is executed with fizzing pastel strokes.
The effect is a golden haze of beauty with the hatchings of the pastel forming her outline. We have returned to the back view, the face is hidden. Degas has found a particularly fine line between shoulders, back and hips indicating contour with tones of greens and blues.
Degas moved, in 1890, to his next address 23 Rue Ballu, which is close to point 7.
You can easily access it by dropping downhill on Rue Blanche. Navigating from point 7 you would simply turn around, walk down the slope on Rue Blanche and take the third street on your right which is Rue Ballu. I indicate the general direction on the map with an arrow below point 7.
The Woman Combing Her Hair from 1887 – 90, which could have been started in Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle and finished in Rue Ballu and is now in the Orsay Museum, shows us an almost romantic Degas.
The very long mane of auburn hair which the bather is combing draws our eyes towards her exposed torso and bust. The flowing river of hair and her generous lines as well as the blue and green splashes of colour behind her (which are her discarded clothes), recall the water from which she has emerged.
Greek mythology has Aphrodite born from the sea; the way the model’s towel is arranged here recalls, vaguely, the Venus de Milo in the Louvre or perhaps a reference to a classical nymph. A mermaid combing her hair also springs to mind.
There is no hint here of the harsh naturalism of the earlier tub pictures. The bottom of the picture runs off the canvas in a cascade of fuzzy colour emphasised by the vigorous strokes at the seat’s fringe.
Form starts to dissolve to the advantage of the expressive possibilities of colour. The figure of the woman, the flowing movement of her hair combing and the way it draws us down to the bottom of the picture, suggests the fall of water. She has become a fluid shifting water spirit.
In the privacy of his studio, far from the critics, Degas has softened up a bit. There is no feminine ‘animality’ here, what we see is feminine sensuality.
In 1897 Degas moved again, this time to 37 Rue Victor Massé which is point 13 on the map.
point 13, 37 Rue Victor Massé
The building you see now replaces the one Degas lived in which was demolished in 1912.
Right opposite where he used to live was the famous Bal Tabarin a dancehall and music hall.
It featured an Art Nouveau carnivalesque facade from the first decade of the 20th century and was demolished in 1966. It made way for the standard format residential apartments you now see in its place.
After the Bath: Naked Woman Rubbing her Neck
Another wonderful image of femininity which dates from the time of Degas’ arrival at point 13 is After the Bath: Naked Woman Rubbing her Neck in the Orsay Museum, Paris.
Once again the model’s face is hidden, we cannot judge her character or mood; what we have is a beautiful but anonymous female ‘specimen’.
She is sitting on the edge of a bath, the clean cool lines of the bath contrast with the full roundness of her hips and buttocks. Her posture, on the lip of the bath, pushes her towards the viewer, this amplifies the graceful curve of her back. In the grace of that line it is impossible not to see Degas’ appreciation of female beauty.
The hollow of her shoulders as she goes about drying her neck and hair is echoed in the arrangement of a towel draped on the ever present comfortable chair. The curve of the side of the high backed chair echoes the sweep of her back.
Light floods in and illuminates her flank. Her back and bottom are in shadow which emphasises their form and magnifies volume. The shadow also helps to amplify the sinuous line of her back.
Her form is contrasted with the strong vertical background panels. These panels represent perhaps a dressing screen, a curtain, and wallpaper but, as in many later Degas works, are alluded to by colour rather than form.
This is certainly a sensual image; it is so in an unconscious and natural way. There is no provocation, titillation or suggestive posing. It is simply a neutrally observed beautiful young woman drying the back of her neck.
Degas has chosen to portray a banal gesture. These repeated chores and movements are a kind of reality and a background to everyday life. We are hardly conscious of balancing when we sit on the edge of a bath and yet that instinctive sense and many of our other immediate reactions and habits are an important part of our day to day life. Degas wanted to make art out of that too.
Woman at Her Toilette in the Art Institute, Chicago
The Woman at Her Toilette in the Art Institute in Chicago is a late work from sometime between 1900 – 05 and would have been painted here. Degas’ vision had been slowly deteriorating for many years and is perhaps one of the reasons he took to sculpture.
Already in 1893 he said “I work with the greatest difficulty and yet I have no other joy”.
In this work we see Degas returning to one of his favourite poses: a woman holding her hair and vigorously rubbing dry the back of her neck. As usual the view is of her back and flank. She has pitched into her drying routine with such energy that her torso is flexing to the left.
The rubbing, twisting and leaning seems to have animated the background which flickers and swirls into life. A curtain billows forward to hide her lower half, wallpaper turns to multicoloured thread and dances off the wall, the staple of the Degas bather series, the upholstered chair, is suggested by a swirl of yellow, a towel is a shaft of brilliant white, whilst the blue light from the window seems to be tumbling onto her back like a waterfall. The bather herself has the dramatic presence of a Hellenistic torso.
It is true that Degas had chosen the difficult route in his career as an artist. Here towards the end of his life as the colours begin to take leave of their associated forms and trace their own expressive possibilities, is there just a hint of indulgence? As he lets rip with his pastels does he find that joy he was talking about? Degas would never say and we only have the paintings.
Whilst the bathers that Degas painted are probably his greatest achievements, we can’t leave him without visiting the opera one more time. We will do that by briefly looking at Dancers in Blue in the Orsay Museum.
Dancers in Blue
This time we are in 1893, when Degas lived and worked in Rue Ballu.
We see four ballerinas in the wings, just about to go on. The action is suggested in the background by the light and an indistinct dancing figure who is hidden by the stage scenery.
The girls are now dressed in their best blue costumes, these are portrayed by Degas with graded colour from rich purple to powder blue. These are the last few nervous moments before the girls take to the stage.
The girls are agitated and are busy fidgeting, stretching, twisting and fiddling. Having seen their exhausting and exacting practices and rehearsals, we can be confident that, once on stage, they will click into their performance.
Degas has suggested the verdant opera scenery with small circles of green, pink and yellow. These are in fact his fingerprints. It is as though the dabbing of his fingers to apply the paint mirrors the nervous energy of the dancers.
Degas’ last move
Degas had to move out of point 13 in 1912 when the building he lived in was to be demolished. He was forced to move his entire collection to 6 Boulevard de Clichy, where he died in 1917. The move seems to have broken his desire to work. As far as is known Degas was not artistically active during this final period.
This ultimate address is not on the walk as there is little to see except a plaque outside. I have indicated the direction on the map with red arrows beyond point 2.
All photographs © David Macmillan except: (1), (2), (3) (4), (5), (6), (7), (8), (9), (10).
All Wikipedia photographic attribution courtesy of the Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons Attribution generator :
(1) Edgar Degas artist QS:P170,Q46373, Degas - Vor den Tribünen, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(2) Edgar Degas creator QS:P170,Q46373, Degas, A Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers (Madame Paul Valpinçon), marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(3) Edgar Degas artist QS:P170,Q46373 Details of artist on Google Art Project, Edgar Degas - The Ballet Class - Google Art Project, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(4) Edgar Degas artist QS:P170,Q46373 Details of artist on Google Art Project, Edgar Degas - Ballet Rehearsal on Stage - Google Art Project, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(5) Edgar Degas artist QS:P170,Q46373, Edgar Degas, Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(6) Edgar Degas artist QS:P170,Q46373, Edgar Degas, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1878-1881, NGA 110292, CC0 1.0
(7) Edgar Degas artist QS:P170,Q46373, Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas 031, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(8) Unknown, Bal Tabarin 1904, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(9)Edgar Degas artist QS:P170,Q46373, Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas 045, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(10) Edgar Degas author QS:P170,Q46373, Edgar Degas self portrait photograph, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons