Woman in the Bathtub, 1886 Pastel on paper, 70cm x 70cm, Hillstead Museum, Farmington, CT
Degas never considered himself to be an impressionist painter, even though the majority of his work was shown in the great Impressionist shows in Paris in the nineteenth century. He never liked the way he’d been treated by the Salon, and finding himself friends with Manet and others, he kind of came along for the ride. He scorned impressionist ideas such as painting in the fresh air, and he considered his own approach to painting to be classical and traditional. Still, when we see those children dancing in the soft stage lighting it is impressionism we think of and if that makes the old boy roll in his grave, so be it.
His career was long and his range pretty wide compared to many of his contemporaries. In the end, though, his most popular work might be categorized as the racing or equestrian pictures, the dancers, and the ladies at their toilet, by which I mean the classical sense of washing, dressing, arranging their hair, etc. Obviously, I have chosen a work from the third group here, preferring to look at and consider naked ladies to horses and dancers.
Degas was the opposite to many of the artists we’ve looked at the last few months, in that there was simply nothing renegade about him. He would be called an ultra-conservative today, and by all accounts became a curmudgeonly, hateful fellow as the years went by. He never married, and almost all his friendships failed over time. He gained a bad reputation as an anti-semite, and apparently spent much of his last few years wandering around alone and muttering to himself, a kind of caricature of the angry white male.
It would be easy to imagine all kinds of psychological motivations for the subjects he pursued over his career, but I doubt seriously if any of them could be relied upon. Degas was simply the kind of man who obsessed over details, over the notion of getting something right. As a young man he was friends with Ingres who mentored him, teaching him that lines were the secret to everything in art. Degas was a believer in process, and he returned to a subject again and again trying to wrestle it to the canvas until at last he could move on. He was also a realist who knew he had to pay the bills. He is famous for having many “unfinished” paintings which he blamed on failures of his eyes. My own thinking is he knew just how much work he needed to do to get paid, and then he was back to whatever his passion of the moment might be.
He became fascinated with women and their preparations. He has many drawings and pastels of ladies in tubs, entering tubs, drying themselves, brushing their hair. The above is my favorite of this series. The harsh geometry of the circular tub conflicts with the draped lines of the curtains, the towel on the floor, the linens behind her. She is encapsulated, held within the circle of a man-made object of dull metal. There is barely any water in this tub, only enough to wet her sponge. Even if heated, the water must chill almost as soon as it is poured. Yet she will endure this every day. It is what you do when you are a woman. It is the ritual of readiness. It seems uniquely feminine, this posture. Few men are comfortable bending this way; we tend to bend at the knees and go down. This seems to me indicative of Degas, this search for tiny little bits of visual accuracy, things that we recognize as true without really thinking about them.
As with Gauguin, Degas reminds me what astonishing beauty can come from the hand of an unpleasant individual. Degas once fired a model because he found out she was a protestant. He hated jews. He even thought things like the telephone were simple, sinful wastes of time. He’d have been the old man ranting on street corners nowadays, knocking bluetooths out of ears with his walking stick. Degas put his ladies in their place, in a troupe where their actions could be controlled, bound by circles like tubs and wedding rings. Maybe women scared him a little bit. Early in his career he painted cafe society, and when you look at those pictures (one follows, The Absinthe Drinker) you get a sense of the artist at arm’s length, uncomfortable, unlike the feeling you get from Manet and Renoir of an artist deep among his subjects.
This bathing lady may be trapped by convention and her options might be limited in Degas’ time, but you know from this picture that this faceless woman will stand upright in a moment, she will look straight into the eyes of her judgmental, cold, and self-righteous artist, and he will turn away in discomfiture. She will then dress, take her money, and return to the world to be with her loved ones. And he will finish her picture alone.