Drawing may be the most haunting obsession the mind can experience… At once a curious and at times violent contest begins, in which this desire, along with chance, memory, the skill and variable proficiency of the hand, the idea and the instrument, are all engaged in an interchange whose more or less felicitous and foreseeable result consists of pencil strokes, shadings, shapes, the appearances of places and living things… in short, the work.’ – Paul Valéry
From around 1890 onward, Edgar Degas drew more than two hundred pastels in various series related to his bathers theme; only the dancers, this artist’s signature, most popular subject, surpassed them in quantity. Considering all other content in the artist’s late oeuvre, Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall have pointed out, ‘only his images of the female bathers approached the dancers in sustained originality and commitment’ (J. DeVonyar & R. Kendall, Degas and the Dance, exh. cat., Detroit Institute of Arts, 2002, p. 231).
Just as the drawing Femme s’essuyant les cheveux appears to have initiated an extensive series of drawings and pastels depicting a seated bather drying her hair (see also lot 7), the present charcoal study Après le bain, drawn a few years later, likely prompted the sequence of pastels in which the bather, seen in profile and seated beside the tub from which she had emerged, towels her bosom and beneath under her left arm (Lemoisne, nos. 1011 [re-dated circa 1895-1900; illustrated above] and 1340-1343). In this inceptive essay, Degas established the elevated position from which he viewed his model, having seated her in a scallop-back chair, draped with linens, in front of a classic porcelain-enamelled, cast-iron tub, tilted to comply with the perspective of the room.
Degas first exhibited his domestic bathers theme in the eighth and final Impressionist group exhibition of 1886; ten pastels comprised a ‘Suite de nuds [sic] de femmes se baignant, se lavant, se séchant, s’essuyant…’. While Seurat’s Un dimanche à la Grande Jatte, completed the previous year, became the lightning rod of public bemusement and ridicule, Degas’s scenes of the female nude à sa toilette were deemed scandalous—the artist’s models must be prostitutes, viewers believed, the rooms those of seedy, cheap hotels: ‘Degas lays bare for us,’ one critic complained, ‘the streetwalker’s modern, swollen, pasty flesh’ (quoted in The New Painting, exh. cat., The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 1986, p. 431). Painting a bather as the mythical Diana or the biblical Susanna was perfectly acceptable—‘nude models are all right at the Salon’, Degas remarked to his dealer Ambroise Vollard, ‘but a woman undressing, never!’ (Degas, quoted in A. Vollard, Degas: An Intimate Portrait, New York, 1937, p. 48).
Dismayed at the outcry, and labeled a ‘misogynist’ for the direct treatment he accorded his feminine subject matter, Degas nevertheless persisted with the bathers theme. ‘Such pictures, in which the pleasure of observation is inextricably linked with the seductive qualities of the medium itself, came to dominate Degas’s production from the late 1880s onward, through the final decades of his career after 1890,’ George T.M. Shackelford has written. ‘Retreating from the public eye, after 1890 Degas treats the nude for himself, for his own gratification, and for his own celebration of the body’ (G.T.M. Shackelford, Degas and the Nude, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2011, p. 156).