EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
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Property of an Important Collector
EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)


EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
signed twice 'Degas' (upper and lower right)
pastel and charcoal on paper laid down on board
27 7/8 x 19 in. (70.8 x 48.1 cm.)
Drawn circa 1898-1900
Ambroise Vollard, Paris.
Private collection, Europe (before 1939, then by descent); sale, Sotheby's, London, 3 December 1996, lot 25.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
A. Vollard, Degas, Paris, 1914 (illustrated, pl. LVII).
P.A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, Paris, 1946, vol. II, p. 136, no. 277 (illustrated, p. 137; dated circa 1870-1872).
F. Russoli and F. Minervino, L'opera completa di Degas, Milan, 1970, p. 103, no. 365 (illustrated; dated possibly 1870-1872).
J.S. Boggs, D.W. Druick, H. Loyrette, M. Pantazzi and G. Tinterow, Degas, exh. cat., Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 1988, p. 429 (illustrated, fig. 235; dated circa 1882-1886).
Sale room notice
Please note that this work has been requested by The Cleveland Museum of Art for its exhibition Degas and the Laundress, which will be shown September 2023-February 2024.

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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

A faithful contributor to the Impressionist exhibitions, Edgar Degas shared the group’s dedication to depicting modern life. For Degas, however, modern life was not confined to the promenades and landscapes of bourgeois leisure, it was also found in the new spaces of the working classes. He captured the relentless development of female labor in particular, depicting shopgirls, laundresses and ballet dancers, and aestheticized their work by privileging color and form over sweat and toil. Laundresses—including women ironing, as in the present work—numbered among his favorite subjects, as they represented for Degas a certain modern Parisian sensuality. Not long after the completion of Repasseuse Degas wrote to fellow artist James Tissot from New Orleans: “Everything is beautiful…But one Paris laundry girl, with bare arms, is worth it all…” (quoted in E. Lipton, Looking into Degas, Berkeley, 1986, p. 138).
In fin-de-siècle France the laundress became an icon of modernity, fascinating for her implicit sexuality. In the extreme heat of the communal washrooms these women worked in a state of near undress, exposing their vigorously physical bodies and so casting doubt upon their morality. Degas’ imagery tempers this sexuality, eliding their supposed prurience in favor of strength and clarity of movement. Repasseuse is one of nearly thirty images of laundresses in Degas’ oeuvre: much as his depictions of ballet dancers underscore the repetition of their practice, so too do his ironing women capture the limited repertoire of their daily actions. The view here—a figure bent at the waist with one hand on the iron and the other grasping the cloth—is reprised in several compositions including Repasseuse à contre-jour (Lemoisne, no. 356; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Repasseuse (Lemoisne, no. 685; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).
As Edmond de Goncourt said of Degas, “he has fallen in love with modern life and out of all the subjects in modern life he has chosen washerwomen…it is not a bad choice. It is a world of pink and white, of female flesh in lawn and gauze, the most delightful of pretexts for using pale, soft tints. He showed me, in their various poses and their graceful foreshortening, washerwomen and still more washerwomen…speaking their language and explaining the technicalities of different movements of pressing ironing…” (quoted in R. Baldick, Pages from the Goncourt Journal, London, 1962, p. 206).
In the present work, as is typical in Degas’ pastels, a charcoal under-drawing is visible, providing an armature around which the rich pastel colorings are built. In this way he remained true to the tradition of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who once advised Degas to “Draw lines, young man, draw lines” (quoted in E.P. Janis, “Prints and Photographs: An Autumnal Landscape by Edgar Degas,” in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, no. 31, 1973, p. 180). The pastel has also been applied in linear strokes, particularly visible in the copper and chartreuse of the woman’s hair. Elsewhere, Degas has smudged the pigment: the grey blues of the linen have been smoothed, so that the cloth seems to billow beneath the force of her ironing.
Pastel was a significant medium for Degas. Where his Impressionist colleagues Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Berthe Morisot used them for preparatory drawings, Degas—perhaps influenced by the pastel rococo portraits by Quentin de la Tour held in his father’s art collection—elevated the medium, using it to create some of his most technically innovative works. His experiments included wetting pastels, or crushing the pigment to mix with aqueous solutions; spraying his works with layered fixatives, including casein and boiling water; and even, perhaps, combining them with glycerin to create a “pastel soap.” He aimed to create variety in surface texture, as well increase the luminosity of his colors by layering rather than mixing them.
The vigorous application of pigment in Repasseuse encapsulates the artist’s later technique. In the 1880s, as pastel became his primary medium, Degas had begun to employ a looser, more instinctive finish than is typically visible in earlier works. Dating of this work has differed over the years: Lemoisne dated it to 1870-1872, while Gary Tinterow dated it circa 1882-1886 (exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 429). More recently, Theodore Reff has suggested that the work was executed as late as 1898-1900, comparing it stylistically to "two charcoal and pastel drawings (Lemoisne, nos. 1460 and 1461) and a closely related oil (Lemoisne, no. 770) of dancers on stage, all of which are generally dated to about 1898." Given the near abstract coloring of the figure’s head, and the multi-layered application of the expressively rendered pastel, this date is more in keeping with Degas’ bold, radical technique of the late 1890s. In addition, Reff has suggested that these effects are present because Degas reworked this pastel—as evidenced by the two signatures present, the earlier partly obscured one at the lower right and the later, perfectly legible one at the upper right. Taking an earlier study, Degas likely added the more daring tones and handling on a later occasion, before signing it again after he had completed it.
Repasseuse first entered the collection of Degas’ friend Ambroise Vollard, who was among the most important contemporaneous dealers of avant-garde art. The two met in at the dealer’s gallery in 1894, and for the next two decades Degas acquired artworks from Vollard by Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Edouard Manet, the Nabis artists, Vincent van Gogh, and others. Sometimes Degas paid outright for these works, but often he traded his own drawings and pastels, an exchange that pleased both parties. According to the artist Mary Cassatt: “Vollard says he has some of the finest Degas pastels…” (quoted in R. Rabinow et al., Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, patron of the avant-garde, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2006, p. 151).

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