After Bath by Edgar Degas

In the second half of the 1870s Degas began producing a number of pastels of nudes washing, drying, dressing and so on, and these reached their full development in the 1880s. He showed a group of six or seven such pastels at the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition of 1886, where they received great critical attention. In some of the pastels Degas used overtly erotic poses and, though eroticism was doubtless one of the reasons for his choice of this theme, another equally important motivation was the new forms that the subject presented him. This interest in form even led him to attempt similar subjects in sculpture.

In pose and scale this work represents the transition from those of the late 1870s and early 1880s to those of the late 1880s. In contrast to the earlier examples, it is larger and shows the figure upright rather than crouching, seated or bent over. Degas added an extra strip at the bottom of the work to allow himself room for this pose. As here, most of the figures in the series have their backs to the viewer, so giving the impression that they are caught unawares, engaged in activities that normally remain concealed. The poses, sometimes rather ungainly, were unusual in art, though on occasion they mimic those of classical statues. As in some of the images of dancers, the figure here is shown precariously balanced on one leg while drying the other. The lighting from the half-open window emphasizes her form, making it almost sculptural, and there is little in the interior to distract from the central figure. In fact, the flat, decorative areas of the bathrobe, curtain and wall covering form a backdrop against which her three dimensionality is displayed to greater effect, while the rich, dark colours of these elements offset the light flesh tones.

The reviews of the 1886 exhibition, which reflect the range of attitudes towards the works as a whole, were largely favorable and praised Degas' extraordinary draftsmanship. The voyeuristic feel of these works was noted: Degas himself said that the nudes were seen "as if through a keyhole". As ever questions were asked about the status of women depicted, though perceptions were various. Many saw them as lower class, perhaps even prostitutes, a reading that was thought to be confirmed by the fact that the figures were not ideal in the academic sense. Some contemporaries also suggested that the lack of grace in the poses of the figures and the realistic portrayal of such intimate activities were signs of misogyny on Degas' part. However, in the late 1880s and 1890s misogynistic views of women were prevalent in Decadent literature, and such comments probably reflect more about the critics than the artist, though the view persists to a degree.