Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Edgar Degas - The Tub

Edgar Degas, The Tub, 1885-1886
(Hill-Stead Museum, CT)
In the 1880's Degas worked on a series of pastels on paper with the subject matter of women at their toilette.   Unlike his earlier pastels, he intended these to be a group so he used store bought boards of the same size establishing a sense of unity.  He exhibited six of these in the last Impressionist show in 1886.
In this group Degas showed women taking their daily ablutions, totally absorbed in their activity, in a cuvette (a shallow tub).  The models' faces and expressions could not be discerned because Degas chose to portray them concentrating on their activity, not looking or acknowledging the viewer in any way.  In so doing he universalized and disassociated them from any particular type of woman and put the viewer in the position of catching a private view of a woman in her most natural and candid moment.  However, the decor, tub and the chair are clues indicating she is of Degas' time.  Also the use of the shallow tub and even her red hair had class associations pointing to her lower class origins.

The subject matter of the women at their toilette was due to the influence of Japanese woodblock prints but Degas' figures are much more modeled than their flat Japanese counterparts.  In these pastels, Degas went back to drawing and to borrowing and transforming ancient art.  Some of the poses in these works recall sculptures from antiquity.  He worked every area of the pastel with chiaroscuro and sharp outlines. Degas felt that drawing allowed him to achieve a richer feel emphasizing line over color.  Even his use of color is very linear but, critics ripped him apart for this and wrote that she looked dirty as well as fat and ugly. His use of red haired prostitutes from their contemporary world instead of allegorical beauties with no time or space specificity must have really upset them.  Flaming red hair was associated with sexuality and passion and helped the viewers to identify the figures as prostitutes.  The women look uncomfortable and he was accused of being cruel and debasing women by having them pose this way.  One 19th century critic even said that he was taking down the enshrined woman.

Degas said "my women are simple, honest creatures who are concerned with nothing beyond their physical occupations... it is as if you were looking through a keyhole." With this statement he seems to establish the artlessness of the models, at the same time emphasizing the male gaze as the dominant view point.  

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