Degas's pastels rank as one of the outstanding achievements in the pictorial arts of the nineteenth century. He made over seven hundred works in pastel, more than in any other medium; and he performed his boldest technical and artistic experiments in this area. The impact of these works was immediate and profound. Caillebotte and Monet were among the first to collect them; and in a review of the Salon of 1877, Louis Gonse praised the artist's efforts "to revive the medium by rejuvenating it [with pastels] not unworthy of the great tradition of La Tour and Chardin" (L. Gonse, "Les Aquarelles, Dessins, et Gravures au Salon de 1877," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Paris, Aug. 1, 1877, p. 162).
Executed around 1883, Après le bain is an outstanding example of Degas's bold achievements in this medium. According to the catalogue of the 1988 Degas exhibition:
This work occupies a key position transitional between the pastelized monotypes begun in the mid-1870's and largely completed by the early 1880's and the large-format nudes that Degas began in the mid-1880's and continued working on for ten years. Its size falls neatly between the average sizes of the two groups, and its date probably lies about midway between the two periods in question. It may in fact have been the point of departure for the entire series of large nudes that culminated in the works shown at the Impressionist exhibition of 1886. (G. Tinterow, exh. cat., op. cit., Paris, 1988, p. 421)
Furthermore, whereas the earlier nudes tend to be crouched or stooping, the present figure stands nearly fully erect and is almost wholly visible to the viewer; the present work is also one of the first executed in a larger format (ibid., p. 421). Thus it marks an important transition in Degas's career.
The artist appears to have worked out the composition for the picture in a series of drawings, all of which show the figure in the same pose. In the largest and most complex of these studies, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the fall of light on the bather is identical to that in the present picture, but her right hand rests on the edge of a tub rather than on the back of a chair (fig. 1). Later in his career, Degas made two additional full-scale pastels of the figure, one showing her stepping into the bath (fig. 2), the other showing her with her hand on the back of a chair turned in the opposite direction from that in the present work (fig. 3). The artist also modeled statuettes of a figure in the same pose (fig. 4).
Clearly, Degas was fascinated with this pose, which, like that of the Petite danseuse de quatorze ans, appears simultaneously graceful and awkward, natural and complex. Degas often sought this combination of effects as a way of overcoming the limitations of academic art. As he once explained to a visitor,
Until now the nude has always been presented in poses which assume the presence of an audience, but these women of mine are decent, simple human beings who have no other concern than that of their physical condition...it is as though one were watching through a key hole. (quoted in G. Adriani, Degas: Pastels, Oil Sketches, Drawings, London, 1985, p. 86)
The momentary and unaffected character of the woman's pose in Après le bain helps to create the appearance of intimacy which Degas sought.
Another of the noteworthy features of Après le bain is its extraordinarily beautiful lighting. Cool light flows into the room through the curtained windows at the right and strikes the woman's body, creating a dramatic contrast between her brightly illuminated back and her shadowed side and front. Degas always displayed a great sensitivity to the effects of light, even in his earliest works, but his use of dramatic chiaroscuro for modeling became more pronounced following his exploration of monotype in 1876 and 1877. In the present work, he has used strong chiaroscuro on the figure to give her body a rounded and statuesque presence. Degas in fact experimented with making pastels of nude bathers directly on top of monotypes, and it has been suggested that Après le bain may have been made in this fashion.
The fully modelled forms of the figure which Degas achieves in Après le bain demonstrate the superlative level of draughtsmanship which Degas reached in his pastels of the 1880's. About these works Gauguin commented,
Drawing has been lost, it needs to be rediscovered. When I look at these nudes, I am moved to shout--it indeed has been rediscovered. (quoted in "Degas von Paul Gauguin," Kunst und Künstler X, 1912, p. 341)
The sculptural quality of Degas's bather pastels has been noted ever since the artist exhibited them at the 1886 Impressionist exhibition. In a review of that show, the critic Octave Mirbeau wrote about these pictures, "The women...have, in their individuality, the beauty and strength of gothic sculptures" (May 21, 1886, quoted in R. Gordon and A. Forge, op. cit., p. 236). And Charles du Bos wrote of this group, "It is out of stone that these monumental nudes of Degas seem hewn--balanced blocks, of an absolute internal coherence" (Remarques sur Degas, quoted in ibid., p. 267).
In the present work, the balance of the composition is especially clear. The woman's right leg is posed on the central axis of the picture, her left leg is raised to the transverse axis, and her body is inclined at an angle parallel to the diagonal which falls from the upper left to the lower right corner. The classical harmony of the composition complements the figure's complex and transitional pose, producing a combination of order and movement which is central to the effect of Après le bain. As Jean Sutherland Boggs has noted, in this pastel "there is an exquisite suggestion of the act of balancing to achieve equilibrium" (J.S. Boggs, exh. cat., op. cit., Paris, 1988, p. 29).
Degas was possibly the greatest colorist since Titian in the sixteenth century, and Après le bain is also full of his characteristic experiments with color. While the artist used a naturalistic palette for the figure, he applied the glowing colors of the room in a more inventive and expressive fashion. In the lower part of the picture, cool blues and greens predominate, while in the upper half, warm pinks and ochres are featured instead. This division of the picture into warm and cool areas corresponds generally to the illumination in the image. Furthermore, there are color accents in contrasting hues throughout the picture, notably the warm brownish red marks in the deep green carpet.
The novelist and critic J.-K. Huysmans discussed the bathers as a group, characterizing them in words that capture something of the impact of Après le bain:
What we may see in these works is the unforgettable veracity of these types, captured with a deep-seated and ample draughtsmanship, with a lucid and controlled passion, as though with a cold fever; and what is to be seen is the ardent and subtle coloring, the mysterious and opulent tone of these scenes; the supreme beauty of this flesh tinted pink or blue by water and illuminated by windows hung with gauze in dim rooms in which can be made out, in the daylight creeping in from the courtyard, walls covered with toile de Jouy, sinks and basins, flagons and combs, boxwood brushes, kettles of rosy copper. (quoted in R. Gordon and A. Forge, op. cit., p. 231)
(fig. 1) Edgar Degas, Femme nue debout, 1883-1884
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
(fig. 2) Edgar Degas, Le bain, circa 1894
(fig. 3) Edgar Degas, Femme s'essuyant, après le bain, circa 1890
(fig. 4) Edgar Degas, Femme sortant du bain, fragment
Après le bain
Pastel on joined paper
Property from a
PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Signed bottom right 'Degas'
Paris, Galerie Durand-Ruel, Impressionnistes, May-June, 1886
Weimar, Dec., 1903-March, 1904
London, Grafton Galleries, Pictures by Boudin, Cézanne, Degas, Manet, Monet, Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Jan.-Feb., 1905, no. 52
Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, Exposition Degas, April-May, 1924, pp. 77-78, no. 145 (illustrated, p. 79)
Paris, Galerie Durand-Ruel, Quelques oeuvres importantes de Corot à van Gogh, May-June, 1934, no. 9
Paris, Musée de l'Orangerie des Tuileries, Degas, March-May, 1937, no. 120
Buenos Aires, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, La pintura francesa, de David a nuestros dias, July-Aug., 1939, p. 60, no. 42 (illustrated, p. 46). The exhibition traveled to Montevideo, Salon Nacional de Bellas Artes, April, 1940.
San Francisco, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, The Painting of France: Since the French Revolution, Dec., 1940-Jan., 1941, p. 16, no. 32 (illustrated, p. 82)
Worcester, Art Museum, The Art of the Third Republic: French Painting 1870-1940, Feb.-March, 1941, no. 5 (illustrated)
Chicago, The Art Institute, Masterpieces of French Art Lent by the Museums and Collectors of France, April-May, 1941, no. 43
New York, Durand-Ruel Galleries, Degas, Nov., 1947, no. 20
Paris, Galerie Durand-Ruel, Edgar Degas 1834-1917, June-Oct., 1960, no. 36 (illustrated)
Stockholm, Nationalmuseum, Det Ljuva Frankrike (La douce France), Aug.-Oct., 1964, no. 30 (illustrated)
Hamburg, Kunstverein, Französische Impressionisten: Hommage à Durand-Ruel, Nov., 1970-Jan., 1971, no. 12 (illustrated)
Paris, Galerie Durand-Ruel, Cent ans d'Impressionnisme: Hommage à Paul Durand-Ruel, 1874-1974, Jan.-March, 1974, no. 17 (illustrated in color)
Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Degas, Feb.-May, 1988, pp. 366 and 421, no. 253 (illustrated, p. 367; illustrated in color, p. 422). The exhibition traveled to Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, June-Aug., 1988, and New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sept., 1988-Jan., 1989.
20½ x 12 5/8 in. (52 x 32 cm.)
V. Pica, "Artisti contemporanei: Edgar Degas," Emporium, vol. XXVI, Dec., 1907, p. 416 (illustrated)
G. Moore, "Degas," Kunst und Künstler, vol. III, 1907-1908, p. 144 (illustrated)
G. Grappe, "Edgar Degas," L'art et le beau, Paris, vol. I, 1908, p. 12 (illustrated)
P.A. Lemoisne, "Degas," L'art de notre temps, Paris, vol. XLII, 1912, pp. 99- 100 (illustrated)
P. Jamot, "Degas," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, vol. XIV, April-June, 1918, p. 163 (illustrated)
P. Lafond, Degas, Paris, 1919, vol. II, p. 52 (illustrated in color)
P. Jamot, Degas, Paris, 1924, pp. 107 and 152 (illustrated, pl. 64)
P.A. Lemoisne, "Edgar Degas, à propos d'une exposition récente," Revue de l'Art, Paris, vol. XLVI, June-Dec., 1924, p. 101 (illustrated)
A. Vollard, Degas, Paris, 1924, p. 20 (illustrated)
G. Rivière, Mr. Degas, Bourgeois de Paris, Paris, 1935, p. 33 (illustrated)
G. Grappe, Edgar Degas, Paris, 1936, p. 49 (illustrated)
C. Mauclair, Degas, Paris, 1937, p. 93 (illustrated)
M. Rebatet, Degas, Paris, 1944, pl. 114 (illustrated)
P.A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, Paris, 1946, vol. III, p. 408, no. 717 (illustrated, p. 409)
P. Cabanne, Edgar Degas, New York, 1958, pp. 56, 99, and 137 (illustrated, pl. 114)
J. Lassaigne and F. Minervino, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Degas, Paris, 1974, p. 126, no. 895 (illustrated, p. 127)
R. Gordon and A. Forge, Degas, New York, 1988, p. 243 (illustrated in color)
R. Thomson, Degas: The Nudes, London, 1988, pp. 135, 138, and 236 (illustrated, fig. 131)
Mrs. Paul Aubry, Paris
Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris (acquired from the above on Oct. 1, 1895)
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner circa 1900