Mirrors of De Gas. Part III (The Basins)

The third part of my saga of about the mirrors of Degas will be about the “basins”.

As always, a few words of the context (and perhaps, a ‘subtext’) of these works.

I wrote already that since the mid-1870s Degas was forced to write more works, simply to sustain himself financially. Fortunately, the demand for this works was growing, he was becoming a known name, and some clients were even ready to pay for his works in advance. This in turn created a need in more models who would sit/pose for his works (including the ones ready to pose naked).

I don’t know much about this side of his work (or of the work of any other painter in his time). Today there are specialized modeling agencies and we can talk about some sort of a market for these services (although lots of arrangements have been still done ad hoc and on a base of personal relationships). I suspect that at those time this was pure jungles; but I could be wrong.  Earlier works by Degas show all sort of models, from the relatives and wives of his friends, to professional or amateur models, to just women and girls who wanted to earn a little bit; this could well be professional prostitutes, too, I guess.

The services of the latter group could be used to paint the “nudes”, an eternal theme of art, and eternal problem in terms of models (at least, until recent times).  Interestingly, Degas didn’t painted that many nudes during the first part of his career (if not to count his student works), but produced a large number of the ‘nudes’ later in his life.

In 1879 Degas is commissioned to make a series of black-and-white illustrations for the stories by Guy de Maupassant, that described, among other things, the life of brothels in Paris.  Here are a few samples of the works proposed by Degas to the book publisher (I have selected only those that have mirrors):

In the room (1879)

The customer (1880)

On the bed (1880) 16 х 21 см

These are strikingly naturalistic works, depicting the things ‘as they are’. As far as I know, they have never been published in a book form (but I could be wrong here, I have some conflicting data on this matter). But in any case, it is clear that Degas coped quite well with the risky subject (including the task of searching the models).

Not all of his works were so extreme as the brothel scenes, but in general we see a growing shift in his art towards depicting more ‘ordinary people’ (mostly ‘ordinary women’, I have to add). I’ve shown some of such works in the previous posting, but those were still the portrait of rather rich citizens or even nobles. Since the early 1880s, Degas began to paint (and sell, pretty successfully) the scenes with the ‘people of labor’, like these examples from the series Ironers.

The Laundress (1883)

The Ironers (1884)

Knowing his dependence on the sales, and of the customers, it is easy to expect the appearance of more “nudes”, an every popular subject. Degas himself treated this issues very pragmatically  if not cynically: If buyer wants something, I can paint whatever he wants. He was repeatedly saying that he lives in a happiest time for the artists: before to write a naked woman bathing, an artist has to pretend he’s illustrating some biblical story (Degas referred to Susanna and the Elders as an example); but nowadays, said Degas, I can just paint naked women bathing.

Some glimpses of this ‘bathing’ theme can be seen already in his early (pre-crisis) works:

The Pedicurist (1873)

This is a very interesting work, both ethnographically and psychologically (although it’s very poor in terms of “mirrors”, again we see just a small part of mirror, an element of the interior. But it’s a relevant element too, this is typical ‘vanity’ mirror of the times, they’ve been often attached to the toilette tables or formed a joint sets.

The bowl, or basin is also interesting: it shows a very common way of taking a bath in  this times, which looked like something in between a bath and a shower, or douche in our modern sense. Large baths, installed in the bathrooms, were available only to very wealthy people, and tap water (and tap shower) did not yet exist).

Interesting, but Degas painted as many – if not more – works with ‘bathing women’ than he did with ballerinas (over 300 works, according to some sources), but that doesn’t make him the ‘painter of the basin’ in public opinion.

Many of these works also show mirrors; some of them are very famous, some others are hardly known, but together they create a remarkable collective portrait of the Bathing Woman & Her Mirror.

Woman at her toilette (1876)

At the mirror (1889)

La Toilette (1888)

La Toilette (1886)

Woman at her toilette (1895)

 Woman at Her Toilette (1888)

The tub (1885)

Woman At Her Toilet (1886)

Majority of these works are painted already by pastel, not oil – with time Degas’ vision  was getting worse, and he preferred to work with less demanding materials than oil.

Woman squatting (1879)

There are, of course, many more such works without mirrors – I can’t show them all here, but this one I’d like to bring, because I need to use it later.

Edgar Degas – Nude in the tub (1884)

This, and many other similar works received, of course, a very mixed reaction from his contemporaries. Some (a minority, mostly fellow artists) saw them as great, original works, in terms of composition, color, and general approach. The majority (the critics and the public alike) considered them almost pornographic, and certainly offensive to women.

Someone has compared the women painted by Degas with a collection of dead butterflies pinned in a box and covered by mirror, deliberately bent in various exotic poses before the killing so the viewer could better enjoy the beauty of their wings.

I think I understand both positions (and could also image many alternative positions as well). My iconic take on that:

This concludes my short story about the Mirrors of Degas. After 1890 he painted very little, although he made some sculptures (his famous wax ballerina), and later created some very fine series of landscapes.

For me these landscapes reveal the ‘real Degas’, of color and textures, rather than of lines and subjects:

Landscape (1890)

Landscape (1891)

L’Esterel (1890)

Burgundy Landscape (1886)

Oddly enough, Degas never followed the advise of his beloved Ingres, and didn’t become the “master of lines”. Instead, ne became a master of the colors and textures, that are traditionally considered “feminine” characteristics of the visual arts (hello, Freud!).

During his last years Degas lived almost alone, abandoned by most of his friends. Many recognized his talent, but couldn’t bear his spiteful comments, his attacks on friends and peers; even the most loyal backed away from him when during the Dreyfus affair, he took the extremely anti-Semitic position.

This is Degas in the mid-1880s. He lived until 1917, pretty amazing, of course, I wasn’t aware that before.

This particular photo is not taken by Degas himself, but it’s interesting that in the 1880s  Degas became interested in photography too, and took quite a lot of photographs (which have been recently collected and published in a book, Edgar Degas, Photographer). Many of these photographs are so-so, so to speak, but I was impressed by his use of multiple exposures.

I even found one of his photographs with a mirror, a self-portrait with Renoir and Mallarme (1879).

Again, a fairly banal take on the mirrors, even for this time, but the amount of celebrities on one pic makes it quite remarkable.

I showed earlier one work of a bathing woman (without a mirror), to also illustrate a new way of making his paintings too. At some point Degas started to take the photographs of his models, and then reproduce them as the paintings. I didn’t know that.



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