By the mid-1890's, Edgar Degas had virtually withdrawn from the artistic society of the Impressionists. He lived with an aging servant and worked, as his failing eyesight permitted, until his death in 1917. Unfortunately, he exhibited very little during this period and discouraged visitors to his studio, and it is therefore difficult to chart with precision the development of his career in his later years.
The Art Institute is fortunate to possess a large number of late works by Degas. Woman at Her Toilette is a fully resolved and complex pastel that is one of nine works with a figure in the same or a similar pose, each different than the last. We do not know whether Degas, moved perhaps by the example of Claude Monet’s series, began to work in a similar way in the mid-1890's; unfortunately, he never exhibited these groups together. Yet, each work from his late years exists as one of a group of related works. Often, the relation-ship is direct, for Degas used tracing paper to borrow his figures from other works, sometimes trans-posing them in reverse and sometimes combining them with figures from different compositions. After he drew or traced the figure, he became involved with the setting, often adding strips of paper to one or more edges of the original traced drawing to create a larger work of art. Such is the case with Woman at Her Toilette, where Degas added three strips of paper to the left, right, and top of the original traced sheet containing the figure.
Woman at Her Toilette is alive with color. The hues range from red-oranges and salmon-pinks to pale greens and lilacs, a palette so wonderfully varied and masterfully balanced that even so great a colorist as Henri Matisse could hardly compete. Degas’s approach to pastels was deeply inventive: he applied the pastels in layers, suspended them in fixatives, sponged them with solvents, and manipulated them almost alchemically. The resulting intermingled hues produce effects that vary greatly when the pastel is viewed from different distances. From fifteen feet or less, the salmon-pink curtain to the right of the figure is shot through with mustard-yellow and deep blood red, but these subtle hues disappear at a greater distance. The same is true for each element of the picture. Even the wet body of the woman seems to pulsate with the reflections of every hue in the environment. Indeed, the woman’s body becomes a vortex, a whirling rainbow of color encircled by powerful juxtapositions of orange-blue and yellow-green. By covering the woman’s buttocks with drapery, Degas effectively suspended her in color, denying the wholeness of her form. Here, the human figure barely survives the riot of pastel in which she exists.
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