Nudes Seen Through a Keyhole

At the last Impressionist show in Paris (1886) Edgar Degas exhibited his pastel drawings. He called them ‘A Series of Nudes of Women That Bathe, Dry Themselves, Comb Their Hair or Have It Combed.’

The public was shocked. One critic spoke of “misogyny cruelly aimed at the female body.” Another saw a “particular accent of hate and disdain.” The women looked like animals preening themselves. Where was feminine beauty? Where was feminine dignity? Did M. Degas find his shameless models at a brothel?
“No,” answered Degas, “my women are simple people, honest ones, who do nothing more than care for their bodies.”

Some of the dozens of drawings by Degas

They were poses and attitudes a woman assumes during her toilette, and they seemed to be caught without her knowing it—“as if seen through a keyhole,” Degas said.

He didn’t look through a keyhole to draw them, however. He brought to his atelier armchairs, washing basins, and bathtubs and made his models pose again and again following his precise orders while he made his notes. The poses may seem to be the hurried catching of a moment, like a camera snap-shot, but that is not the way they were drawn.

The Impressionists were famous for taking their paints and easel outdoors to try to catch a single moment of daylight. Degas didn’t go outdoors. He made fun of Renoir and Monet for doing that. He believed “catching the moment” was the false look the finished picture gave, not the working method. To get that look he made dozens of sketches, copying from models and then from memory. And he thought and thought about his picture. “What I do is the fruit of reflexion and study,” he said. “I don’t know anything about inspiration, spontaneity, and temperament.”

He had been experimenting with a look of stopped motion for years, originally in his paintings of dancers. From photography, which was new in his time, he learned the effectiveness of an unusual viewpoint. The caught moment is twice so if the viewer seems to be caught too—that is, if a figure in her thoughtless or unself-conscious pose is shown from an angle or distance that the accidental viewer or the voyeur might take. He opens the door and finds the woman just this way, in a corner of the room perhaps, or below him on the bed, at the moment she is combing her hair or drying herself after her bath and before she looks up and sees him.

Woman Washing Herself in a Tub Paris, Louvre (public domain photo)

One of the results of this innovation of Degas’ is that the women seem cold. They might as well be animals—there is no sweetness, no heart to them. Some women who saw the drawings at the Impressionist exhibition declared them “obscene”. “On the contrary,” wrote a critic of the time, “if ever there were works that were not obscene; if ever there were works without second intentions and without malice, works decidedly chaste, they are precisely these. They even glorify a disdain for the flesh as no artist has dared to do it since the Middle Ages.” J. K. Huysmans, 1889

Are they ugly then? Not at all. In their treatment of the feminine body they gain in truth what they lose in idealization. And the supposedly despised flesh becomes a radiant tapestry of color and life. A beautiful light shines on them and on the room, the carpets and the cloth-covered walls, the copper wash basins and the pearl-handled combs. They all seem to glow with color.

Le Tub Farmington, Hill-Stead Museum  (public domain photo)

There is one more trick to Degas’ look of spontaneity and immediacy: his pastel drawing itself, almost every stroke of which can be seen and admired. It seems easy to imagine how the picture was constructed, stroke by stroke, and the figure assembled with colors, like the image of a kaleidoscope. It comes into view suddenly, lasts while we look; and with a turn of the cylinder it will be gone, its parts dispersed: it was only the image of a moment.

Woman Drying her Neck Louvre, Paris (public domain photo)

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10 Responses to Nudes Seen Through a Keyhole

  1. erikatakacs says:

    They’re really feel like you look at them through a keyhole. What I find amazing he achieved those specific moments through meticulous planning. Yet they feel very spontaneous. I see no trace of eroticism in them, just a never ending ode to the female body. He was fascinated with it.

  2. Ken Januski says:

    I remember reading about the critics’ reaction to these drawings back in my art history course on Impressionism. At the time I was bowled over by the pastel strokes that you mention. Their color and the overall design seemed to be the only thing I could notice.
    Now I at least can see where some critics might complain about misogyny. But I think it makes much more sense if you think about what the common female nude of the time might have looked like: William Adolphe Bouguereau perhaps? By comparison to his highly idealized paintings these might look almost hateful and disdainful. But to someone like Degas those idealized renderings might have been what was really disdainful. I think that these drawings show a real respect for the figures he is drawing. They are truthful but not disdainful. I think for many artists of that time the portrayal of what they really saw rather than some idealized notion was what was truly beautiful.
    Either way they’re certainly beautiful works today……….

  3. 100swallows says:

    Ken: You made me go look at the Bouguereaus. I wouldn’t call them common female nudes–they are really spectacular, even if insipid, sometimes silly. Isn’t it odd that they are not known now at all–that they have been buried by stuff that certainly does not appeal to the general public as much? Maybe artists got bored with this academic slickness and went other directions,and the critics lost their taste for it–but art buyers?

  4. artmodel says:

    Great post, thank you! Fascinating to read about Degas’ process with his models.

    I’ve never perceived misogyny or voyeurism in these Degas works. They always struck me as intimate. Don’t see the “cold”, dehumanized women that the critics claimed. Regardless of Degas’ setups and preparation, the women still come across as unaware and oblivious. Not staged. It works, and that is very appealing.

    Noticed you mentioned Bouguereau in your comment response to Ken. I just posted about him!!

  5. 100swallows says:

    Artmodel: I see no obscenity in Degas’ nudes either, though to show why some critics may have thought they were misogynous I should have posted some in very awkward postures, which make the women look almost clownish or silly. In any case, they are doing those things they themselves would not like to be seen doing. They are precisely taking pains (sometimes literally) to appear otherwise than Degas shows them. So Degas IS violating their privacy, IS keyhole peeping. And what WAS his intention in showing them this way? Beauty? Surely not. Eroticism? No. They are the antithesis not only of the idealized artistic nudes of the time but even of the ideal that women themselves strive for with their toilette. Perhaps some misogynist could think: “Ha! Now we got you. This is what you REALLY look like.” The misogynist is resentful of the power women have over him and here he has caught the witches without their magic.

  6. rich says:

    As for me, I came to the conclusion of a dispassionate and passionate onlook at the same time:
    Dispassionate like the doctor who bids the lady to undress for a clinical evaluation.
    Passionate like the artist hunting for his next masterpiece.

  7. ivdanu says:

    I think, swallows, Degas was more of a mysanthrope than a misogyne… and he was a pretty good photographer, too (that could explain a lot!) although he did not make much fuss about his photographies…

    Very interesting post, this one. A lot of things to go further with…

  8. Lucy says:

    Why doesn’t Degas ever show the faces of the models? some of the pieces I have seen of his work never seem to show the face and if they do then there is rarely any detail to them, this is only in the nude works. Do you think it was because the models wanted to stay anonymous?

  9. 100swallows says:

    Lucy: His interest in them went only as far as their bodies. I doubt whether most of them wanted to stay anonymous. Most models are delighted to see the portraits you make of them. In life-drawing classes many students concentrate only on the body, knowing that they can do a face any time but not a nude body. Of course the idea of doing just a torso is a strange one, isn’t it? The Greeks didn’t make nudes with the head and arms cut off. That was an unfortunate accident and now we imitate the ruin and call it classical. But remember that the faces they made weren’t portraits but idealized compositions like the rest of the body. A face–any face–characterizes the figure for us. We have learned to read so much into every feature.

  10. sonya fe says:

    Some people are just plain stupid and “you can’t fix stupid”.
    Very good article.

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