During the mid-1880s, Degas repeatedly explored the motif of two or three women leaning on a wooden railing—at the racetrack, on a pleasure boat, or before a landscape—absorbed in casual conversation (Lemoisne, nos. 711-712, 825, 879, 1007). “Degas was clearly intrigued by the visual possibilities of this moment of female intimacy,” Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall have written, “making half a dozen variants of the composition with a range of outfits, headgear, and backgrounds” (op. cit., 2007, p. 66). The protagonists are sometimes seen from behind or with their faces partially obscured, excluding the observer from their warmly familiar exchange. In the present Deux femmes appuyées à une barrière (Conversation), by contrast, the blue-clad woman turns her body squarely toward the viewer as she reaches out to touch her companion on the upper arm in an informal gesture of affection. The railing, positioned here parallel to the picture plane, thrusts the figures into the very foreground of the composition, heightening the immediacy of their encounter and drawing the viewer into their privileged space.
Degas very likely captured this intimate moment during a summer visit to one of his favorite places, the country house of his childhood friend Paul Valpinçon at Ménil-Hubert in Normandy. For three decades beginning in 1861, Degas retreated to the Valpinçon estate almost annually for much-anticipated sojourns of two or three weeks, often combining his stay with excursions to the nearby racetrack at Argentan or the horse-breeding establishment of Haras-le-Pin. Situated some forty miles inland from Trouville, amidst rich agricultural land, Ménil-Hubert offered the city-bred Degas the welcome opportunity to immerse himself in a rural landscape. “Small and large meadows, all closed in by fences,” the artist recorded during his first visit. “Damp paths, ponds. Green and umber. It is completely new to me. Continually going up and down over green hillocks. Everywhere there are woods. Passed by some small farms. Nothing would make a better background setting” (quoted in R. Kendall, Degas Landscapes, New Haven, 1993, p. 39).
The two women in the present pastel, simply yet elegantly clad, have stopped to chat by a rustic wooden fence before a gently rolling landscape such as Degas described. Perhaps they are neighbors, out for a midday stroll, who have chanced to encounter each other at a gate or a crossroads, like the two peasant women in Pissarro’s La Conversation (1881; National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo) or Gauguin and the Breton farm wife in Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin (1889; Národní Galerie, Prague). The tender, informal camaraderie that Degas’s figures exhibit, however, suggests that they are intimates rather than acquaintances—perhaps even mother and daughter, given their evident age difference. One possibility, speculative but plausible, is that they represent Paul Valpinçon’s wife Marguerite and the couple’s only daughter Hortense, then in her early twenties. Degas has underscored their close relationship through the details of their costume, with each woman’s accessories repeating the color of her companion’s dress.
An inveterate bachelor, Degas savored the taste of settled domesticity that his visits to the Valpinçons afforded him, and he turned to the family intermittently as models. Marguerite was probably the sitter for La femme aux chrysanthèmes, 1865 (Lemoisne, no. 125; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and she is depicted on an outing with her husband and infant son in Aux courses, 1869 (no. 281; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Hortense, in turn, was among Degas’s special joys during his stays in Normandy. Having portrayed her at age nine (no. 206; Minneapolis Institute of Arts), he watched her mature and remained friends with her—perhaps even a tad besotted—until the end of his life. In 1883 and 1884, she posed for a life-size clay bust, which subsequently collapsed, and two exquisite profile portraits on paper (no. 722; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and J.S. Boggs, Degas, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988, no. 243).
“His little friend having grown to young womanhood,” recounted a journalist who interviewed Hortense many years later. “It was only natural that Degas should want to capture the pretty profile the purity of which delighted his artist’s eye” (quoted in J.S. Boggs, Degas, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988, p. 410).
The present pastel is roughly contemporaneous with Degas’s milliner series and reflects the same interest in observing and rendering candid, quotidian moments within an exclusively feminine space. Here, however, Degas has transported the theme from an urban, indoor milieu—viewed, perhaps, through a plate-glass shop window—to a rural, plein air context. “Working very much like Picasso at the beginning of the twentieth century,” Gary Tinterow has written, “Degas seems continually to have found for himself interesting pictorial problems, which he then resolved in numerous solutions, each equally viable” (“The 1880s: Synthesis and Change” in ibid., p. 365)