Degas’ bathers paintings – modern realist Aphrodites
His focus shifts from opera ballerinas to nude female bathers
Degas remained interested in the opera ballet dancers throughout his artistic career. He continued to be fascinated by their movement and moments of rest and distraction.
Increasingly though he now turned his attention to revisiting the most traditional of subjects in art: the nude. Whilst there were many examples of nudes from the history of art for Degas to choose from he, of course, did it his way.
For the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition of 1886, Degas revealed that he would present a suite of nude women, “bathing, washing, drying and rubbing themselves dry, combing their hair or having their hair combed”.
Location: 21 Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, 1882 – 1890
By 1886 we find that Degas had moved again but never too far from the Pigalle or lower Montmartre area. His new address was 21 Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle and he was here from 1882 – 1890.
This address does not feature on the circuit but it is easy to make a short detour and see. Instead of following the map and turning right after point 12 cross over Rue Pierre Fontaine and carry on straight down the street to number 21 Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle. The direction is indicated in yellow in the detour map above.
Don’t forget to turn around and come back on track with the walk though.
The Louvre Crouching Aphrodite
The idea of a single figure bathing may have been seeded in Degas’ mind when he visited the Louvre and would have surely viewed, and probably sketched, the ancient Crouching Aphrodite sculpture.
The figure in the Louvre was bought by the museum in 1878. It is a Roman-era copy of a famous and earlier Hellenistic Greek sculpture called The Aphrodite of Knidos. The original Hellenistic piece by Praxiteles dates from the fourth century BC. This Greek statue was very famous because for the first time in ancient art it showed a nude female figure.
The original statue of Aphrodite stood in a specially constructed round building so that its many admirers could view her from all sides.
The piece was so well-known and popular in the ancient world that workshops of copyists soon started producing variants on the theme of Aphrodite bathing. It became the must have piece for the imperial elite and no self-respecting collector in the Roman world was without one.
Degas would have also seen Aphrodite figures on his extensive travels in Italy.
Aphrodite is crouching whilst bathing
The fine Louvre example shows one such variant: Aphrodite, the goddess of desire and beauty, crouching. The 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. She is seen in an unusual position but she is still graceful and poised.
The eroticism of the original came from the fact that Aphrodite was surprised by someone — and that someone becomes you the viewer — in the middle of bathing. She makes some attempt to cover herself whilst reaching for a towel.
All of these Aphrodite sculptures — whether the original or the copies — place the viewer in the role of voyeur, spying on the goddess of beauty.
Degas’ modern realist Aphrodites
Degas was well aware of the classical tradition, he also knew the contemporary academic style that was accepted by the Salon. He could have made life easy for himself by choosing a traditional theme and classical style. But Degas, as ever, saw things differently and came up with a resolutely modern solution.
He placed his nude female subjects in a number of simple, natural, domestic situations: they are shown washing themselves, drying themselves after bathing or combing their hair.
Degas zooms in on one subject
Degas’ paintings of the Paris Opera ballet dancers feature many figures and a wide range of actions. With the nude bathers series Degas zooms in on just one. Degas gets closer, concentrating on catching individual moments of movement as expressed by one body.
These are intimate indoor bathroom pictures so there is less depth of field and less distraction. The background tends to be genericised:
a chair, a towel, perhaps some curtains or a screen for dressing, carpet and wallpaper.
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”.
In the Degas bather paintings there is no implied presence of a secondary actor or viewer
There is no implied interaction — as with the ancient Aphrodite sculptures — with the viewer as voyeur. The bathers are pragmatic notes of attitude and balance and, unlike the Aphrodite examples, are not meant to elicit an erotic response.
Later studies of bathers are more sensual but at the beginning of the series at least, he cared more for movement than female grace.
Degas himself described his artistic perspective for his bathers: it was as though they were viewed “through a keyhole” he is reported as saying.
As usual he was being ironic and provocative, playing with the innuendo of voyeurism whilst at the same time drawing attention to the naturalism of the poses. The women he portrayed were behaving as though they were alone, going about the routine business of washing.
Carefully prepared studies of spontaneous gestures
The pictures look natural but there was nothing spontaneous about the way he had prepared the nude bather series.
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, so we can imagine them being portered by complaining workmen up the stairs at 21 Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle before he got down to work for the eighth Impressionist exhibition of 1886.
Degas was demanding. He endlessly made his models repeat movements and hold long awkward and uncomfortable poses.
Out of that static discomfort flowed a series of pictures of natural and spontaneous movement.
Probably the most famous image of the series is The Tub in The Orsay Museum in Paris.
The pose of the woman squatting, ball-like, in a tub or shallow zinc basin recalls the Louvre Crouching Aphrodite. The figure is sponging the back of her neck and 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 body 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 a spectator. The tub is grey and uninviting, it looks as though there is only a very small amount of water for her to use, hardly enough to even cover her fingers or toes.
Blue patches of pastel on the floor suggest that some of the precious water has splashed out.
It is the awkward and cramped pose that makes the picture work. The bather is not a reclining classical nude or a goddess from Greek mythology, this is a modest modern woman in a tub attending to her hygiene painted in the realist manner. Degas shows that in reality bathing could be difficult and uncomfortable.
Degas’ studios, apartments and major works in the Pigalle area of Montmartre
A cool reception for Degas at the eighth Impressionist exhibition of 1886
Degas took an uncompromising look at a modern woman bathing in 1886. 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. The images were considered unsettling, 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 stoked 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 had in fact given his Tub figure a certain grace as she sets about the routine task of washing herself.
The bathers’ 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 bather’s bony pelvic region, a cold looking tub and her tricky stoop to sponge her feet. The uncomfortable scene is lessened 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 Metropolitan 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 transforming itself into interesting and unexpected forms.
The dynamic postures also highlight the natural 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
Degas took no further part in set piece exhibitions after the last Impressionist show in 1886. He only showed at some low-key events with his dealers. He decided to no longer expose himself to the critical ridicule and humiliation that large public exhibitions attracted.
Degas chose his subject matter and style without compromise, but his excellent draughtsmanship was also recognised and he was by now an in-demand artist.
Because he no longer took part in shows, Degas’ 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’ bathers paintings and feminine sensuality
The Woman Having Her Hair Combed which is now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, presents an enormous contrast with, for example, the tub portraits. The bather has escaped the squatting and twisting of getting washed in a shallow cold metal tub in some tepid water and has moved into a warm comfortable bourgeois environment.
In the painting, the female subject is sitting on an oversized towel which is spread on a mustard coloured upholstered bench. Unusually — because with Degas’ bathers the viewpoint is normally from the back with the face hidden — we see a facing three-quarter nude view and the model’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 angular frame; 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.
We have returned to the back view, with the face hidden. Degas has found a particularly fine line between shoulders, back and hips, he
indicates contour and sheen with delicate pastel greens and blues.
Degas moved, in 1890, to his next address 23 Rue Ballu, which is close to point 7.
Location: 23 Rue Ballu, 1890 – 1897
Rue Ballu is not far from point 7. You can easily access it by dropping downhill on Rue Blanche. Here in yellow is the detour map to Rue Ballu.
Navigating from point 7, you would walk down the slope on Rue Blanche and take the third street on your right which is Rue Ballu.
Woman Combing Her Hair
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,
her generous lines as well as the blue and green splashes of colour behind her — which represent her discarded clothes — recall the water from which she has emerged. The composition of the picture as it draws the eye to the base of the picture, suggests the fall of water. In Greek mythology Aphrodite too is born from the sea, emerging from the foam.
There is no hint here of the harsh realism 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.
In the privacy of his studio, far from the critics, the unrelenting Degas had mellowed. 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.
Location: 37 Rue Victor Massé, 1897 – 1912, point 13
The building Degas lived in was demolished in 1912, the apartment block we see now was put up in the same spot post 1912.
If we turn around from where Degas’ front door would have been we can see some 1960s flats. These replace the famous Bal Tabarin which was a dancehall and popular entertainment venue and was situated right opposite Degas’ apartment block.
The Bal Tabarin featured an ornate Art Nouveau carnivalesque façade from the first decade of the 20th century. It too was demolished — in 1966 — as the Paris city authorities once again forgot about traditional grass roots Montmartre culture. It made way for the standard format residential apartments we now see in its place.
After the Bath: Naked Woman Rubbing her Neck
After the Bath: Naked Woman Rubbing her Neck is another wonderful image of femininity. It dates from the time of Degas’ arrival at point 13. The picture is 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 sculptural female ‘specimen’.
She is sitting on the edge of a bath, the clean cool metallic lines of the bath contrast with the full fleshy roundness of her hips and buttocks.
Her position, sitting on the lip of the bath, pushes her towards the viewer, this amplifies the graceful curve of her back. In the design of that line we can surely see Degas’ appreciation of female beauty. There is no trace of misogyny here.
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 define the sinuous lines.
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.
Degas appears to be slipping away from his traditional framework of strict realistic representation and shifting to cues given by colour of what might be behind the model. Because the background is a pleasant wash of colour our primary focus is now on the presence of the bather and her elegant attitude.
This is certainly a sensual even erotic image; but 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.
The bathers’ unconscious equilibrium
Most people are hardly conscious of their equilibrium when they sit on the edge of a bath or dry themselves. Balance, for many, is unconscious, it is part of daily reality, keeping us on an even footing. Degas with his art wanted to capture that instinctive sense and, even in the most banal situation — like drying yourself whilst perched on the edge of a bath — help show us its momentary physical presence.
Woman at Her Toilette
The Woman at Her Toilette which is in the Art Institute in Chicago is a late work from sometime between 1900 – 05 and would have been painted in the apartment that used to stand here, point 13, 37 Rue Victor Massé.
Degas’ vision had been slowly deteriorating for many years and he was becoming reclusive. Already in 1893 he said “I work with the greatest difficulty and yet I have no other joy”.
In The Woman at her Toilette 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 vigorous rubbing seems to have animated the background which, like the primitive films of the time, flickers 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.
Degas’ had followed his own resolutely independent path as an artist. Here towards the end of his artistic 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, finding free rhythm does he discover that joy he was talking about? Degas would never say and we can only judge by the paintings.
The bathers are among his greatest achievements and are possibly his best works but we can’t leave him without visiting the opera one last time.
Dancers in Blue
Dancers in Blue is in the Orsay Museum in Paris. This painting dates from 1893, when Degas lived and worked in Rue Ballu. We see four ballerinas in the wings, just about to go on stage. The live performance is suggested in the background by the strong stage light and an indistinct dancing figure who is partially hidden by the set.
The girls are dressed in their best blue ballet dresses, these are portrayed by Degas with graded colour from rich purple to powder blue.
These are the last few nervous moments before the dancers take to the stage. The ballerinas are agitated and are busy fidgeting, stretching, twisting and fiddling.
Degas has suggested the verdant opera scenery behind them with small circles of green, pink and yellow. Those coloured circular shapes are in fact his fingerprints. It is as though the dabbing and drumming of his fingers to apply the paint mirrors the impatience and nervous energy of the dancers.
Thanks to Degas we have seen their exhausting and exacting practices and rehearsals; so we can be confident that, once on stage, the four dancers in blue will click into their performance.
Degas’ last move
Degas had to move out of point 13 in 1912 when the building he lived in was 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 on the wall outside. I have indicated the direction on the map with red arrows beyond point 2.
All photographs © David Macmillan except: (1), (2), (3), (4).
(1) Edgar Degas artist QS:P170,Q46373, Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas 031, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(2) Unknown, Bal Tabarin 1904, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(3)Edgar Degas artist QS:P170,Q46373, Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas 045, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(4) Edgar Degas author QS:P170,Q46373, Edgar Degas self portrait photograph, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons