Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Property from the Collection of Lew and Edie Wasserman
Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

Femme s'épongeant le dos

Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Femme s'épongeant le dos
stamped with signature 'Degas' (Lugt 658; lower left)
pastel on joined paper laid down on board
27½ x 23½ in. (70 x 60 cm.)
Drawn circa 1895
Estate of the artist; First sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 6-8 May 1918, lot 231.
Ambroise Vollard, Paris (acquired at the above sale).
Dr. Albert Barnes, Merion, Pennsylvania.
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York.
Anon. sale, Park-Bernet Galleries, Inc., New York, 25 October 1961, lot 27.
Lew and Edie Wasserman, Los Angeles (acquired at the above sale).
P.-A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, New York, 1984, vol. III, p. 696, no. 1197 (illustrated, p. 697).

Lot Essay

Degas drew the pastel Femme s'épongeant le dos circa 1895, a date by which the outlines of his late style were becoming evident, as he entered the final phase of his career. In the active years that were left to him, Degas wasted no time, creating works of incomparable visual power and richness, steeped in the wisdom of a lifetime and supreme knowledge of his craft.

While viewing an exhibition of Degas's late works in 1936, Waldemar George reported being struck by "His tones--false, strident, clashing, breaking into shimmering fanfares... without any concern for truth, plausibility, or credibility" (quoted in Degas, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988, p. 482). When comparing the present pastel of a bather to nudes and other subjects done in previous decades, one recognises that Degas has largely dispensed with his early penchant for specificity and detail, and has instead become preoccupied with the expressive potential contained within a boldly exploratory line, and he practiced the contrivance of brilliant color, taking pleasure in extravagant chromaticism for its own sake. Degas now sought to distill his subjects, in terms of line and color, down to their very essence. "One fact about which there is general agreement by writers on the late work," Joan Sutherland Boggs has noted, "is Degas's increasing indulgence in the abstract elements of his art... In addition, the very texture of Degas's work seems an immediate expression of the will of the man himself... In his interest in and reliance on abstraction, there is a willfulness and a turning to what Degas himself described as 'mystery' in art" (ibid., pp. 481-482).

The dance remained Degas's primary interest during the final two decades of his career: he devoted more than three-quarters of his production in all media to this subject (fig. 1). Richard Kendall has nonetheless counted more than two hundred pastels of bathers that Degas created during his late period, in addition to oil paintings, lithographs, sculpture and innumerable charcoal drawings (Degas beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, 1996, p. 230). Jill DeVonyar and Kendall have pointed out that "only his images of the female bathers approached [the dancers] in sustained originality and commitment" (in Degas and the Dance, exh. cat., American Federation of the Arts, New York, 2002, p. 231).

Competing interests in the dancer and bather actually contributed to create a remarkable unity in the overall profile of Degas's late oeuvre. On one hand, the dancers represent Degas's engagement with a public spectacle governed by august traditions and the rigorous discipline of a great art form; while on the other hand, the bathers speak of Degas's experience of a most private encounter, in which he observes the exposed sensuality of womanhood in an intimately shared environment. Degas's dancers reveal his admiration and respect as the practitioner of one art form for the performers in another. In his domestic bathing scenes, in which the women who are almost always seen from behind, their faces averted and anonymous, there is a deep undercurrent of sexuality, a palpable sense of longing, wishfully voyeuristic, it would seem, and thwarted, giving rise to feelings which Degas must have struggled to hold at bay through a strict adherence to his aesthetic ethos of objectivity and the most dedicated application to the discipline of his craft.

Whether his subjects were dancers or bathers, drawing had unquestionably become the key to Degas's art. "The sheer labour of drawing became a passion and a discipline for him," Paul Valéry observed, "the object of a mystique and an ethic all-sufficient in themselves, a supreme preoccupation which abolished all other matters, a source of endless problems in precision which released him from any other form of inquiry" (in Degas Manet Morisot, Princeton, 1960, p. 64). Since the late 1880s Degas employed charcoal as his sole medium for making drawings. The application of the pastel sticks to paper also constitutes a form of drawing--it is essentially a means of drawing in color--"I am a colourist with line," Degas declared (quoted in exh. cat., 1996, op. cit., p. 257). His reliance on the use of the pastel medium also assumed pre-eminence during the late period, when it accounts for approximately ninety percent of all works done in color, far outnumbering his oil paintings of canvas, the medium in which his fellow artists normally chose to make their most fully realized and definitive statements.

The origin of the leaning, back-sponging pose seen in the present pastel may be traced to several charcoal studies (Estate of the artist, second sale, lot 372; Estate of the artist, third sale, lots 207/2 and 244), and two charcoal drawings with pastel additions (Lemoisne, nos. 915 and 916; the latter fig. 2), all executed around 1887. The back is often the most sensual aspect in Degas's portrayal of the female figure. A few years later, in 1891-1892, Degas began to explore a new, more abstract conception of the female back in a series of four transfer lithographs, each executed in multiple states, D'après le bain I-III (Reed and Shapiro, nos. 63-65), and a large version (no. 66). "This angular, averted figure," as Kendall has described it, "towers over his pictorial repertory," construed as women leaning forward to dry their hair (Lemoisne, no. 726; fig. 3) or, as seen here, with one arm reaching behind them to sponge their back, and in other variations. "The curiously flattened shape that resulted clearly fascinated the artist, offering an oblique structure that energised a number of major compositions, as well as an unforgettable symbol of muscularity... For proof of Degas's later preoccupation with the expressiveness of the figure... we need look no further" (exh. cat., 1996, op. cit., p. 149).

Valéry recalled Degas stating "a picture is the result of a series of operations" (quoted in op. cit., p. 6). Femme s'épongeant le dos is the direct result of a preceding "operation"--the immediate initial idea for this bather appears in the charcoal with pastel drawing Femme à sa toilette, also made around 1895 (Lemoisne, no. 1198). Degas drew this large study on joined papers mounted on a board which shows the woman's draped legs extending down to the floor. To arrive at the composition in the present pastel, which Degas executed in a smaller format, he cropped from the lower edge of the original image approximately a third of its height, thus deleting the lower part of the bather's legs, and he brought the right hand edge a few inches closer to the figure.

The charcoal drawing mentioned above (Lemoisne, no. 1198) is also the source for La toilette, fillette, circa 1895 (Lemoisne, no. 1199), which shows the bather leaning over the washbasin, supporting herself this time with both arms on the dressing table. The latter was done in a much smaller format, just over 12 in. (31 cm.) tall, which required that the figure and all other elements be scaled down from the much larger sizes in the original charcoal drawing. Degas told his friend the sculptor Paul-Albert Bartholomé, "It is essential to do the same subject over again, ten times, a hundred times" (quoted in exh. cat., 1996, op. cit., p. 258). He advised fellow painters to "Make a drawing, begin it again, trace it; begin it again, and retrace it" (ibid., p. 81). The reworked tracings and transfers often generated vast extended families of related drawings and finished pastels, sometimes extending over period of years, marking in Degas's work "the emergence of a new kind of seriality, analogous to some of the 'series' patterns of his peers [e.g., the serial themes in Monet's work], but technically unique to himself" (ibid., p. 71).

Having arrived at this one preparatory drawing of the subject that pleased him, Degas traced it a final time, and had Père Lézin, a print specialist, his framer and colleur, lay down the sheets of tracing paper on durable Bristol board--this is the surface on which Degas would apply his pastels. The artist purposely avoided the use of fine rag, hand-made and specially textured pastel papers. Degas would then proceed to work the new image in pastel, first applying the powdery pigment in broad strokes using the side of the stick, and then utilizing the tip to create a fine, unidirectional array of what the artist called his "zébrures" ("stripes"), resulting in a densely striated surface of colored lines. As he drew he would frequently apply a fixative, made from an unknown recipe given him by the painter Luigi Chialiva, to render each layer of pastel permanent, and allow for further applications, resulting in an accrued build-up of color. The layering of pastel generated subtle hybrid tones and scintillating optical mixtures: Joris-Karl Huysmans noted Degas's ability to "invent neologisms of colour... No artist since Delacroix has understood like M. Degas the marriage and adultery of colours" (quoted in ibid., p. 100). Kendall has written:

"What charcoal is to Degas's line and structure, so pastel is to his colour. With pastel, Degas could work more directly and sensuously at the surface of his designs... Pastel invites flamboyance while charcoal imposes restraint, tactility in place of flatness, the hues of sensation rather than the abstraction of form. In pastel, Degas found a medium that propelled him towards extravagance, using the patient tracings of his draughtsmanship as a springboard to the 'orgies of colour' of his final decades [Lemoisne, no. 1424; fig. 4]. Fusing tradition with violent innovation, Degas seized upon pastel as the ultimate medium of his maturity, uniting in a single material the expressiveness of paint with the spareness and precision of drawing" (ibid., p. 89)

(fig. 1) Edgar Degas, Danseuses, circa 1896. Sold, Christie's New York, 3 November 2009, lot 22.
Barcode: HV27383RX

(fig. 2) Edgar Degas, Femme s'épongeant le dos, circa 1887. Sold, Christie's New York, 3 November 2004, lot 18.
Barcode: 23154629

(fig. 3) Edgar Degas, Après le bain, femme s'essuyant, circa 1890-1895. Sold, Christie's New York, 6 May, 2009, lot 15.
Barcode: SB331_4

(fig. 4) Edgar Degas, Après le bain, (Femme s'essuyant les cheveux), 1903. Sold, Christie's New York, 8 November 2000, lot 23. Barcode: 29175758

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