After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Neck by Edgar Degas (1895-96)

This is the image on the poster of the exhibit I am seeing today, on Degas and the nude (Degas et le nu) at the Musee D’Orsay. It closes next month.

Degas is a major player among the Impressionists, but he has been a figure relatively unexplored until recently. Mostly known for his pretty little ballerinas and long-legged racehorses. I have always loved Degas’s pastels and paintings of the ballet, but his portraits of women at work and in relaxation are marvelous.

Like Lautrec, his closest companion in this area, Degas demonstrates his fascination with the mysterious and simple world of women. As a man, he is always an outsider, living in a male-dominant and male-oriented world, but he aware of the secret power and separateness of women. Even in this simple pastel, Degas demonstrates the mystery of the woman: while she is naked, she is not vulnerable. While the man looking at her notes and admires her sensuality and sexuality, she is only interested in drying her hair. She is not his object, she is her own individual person. Unlike Manet’s Olympia, she is not on display, not looking for admiration or validation, not concerned with his desires or interest.

Instead, the spectator-artist is made vulnerable because she is so closed to him.

But the colors, the patterns, the contrasts and shapes are modern and timeless. The pastels slay me, really. Delightful. I love the sturdy, voluptuous, red-headed woman of Degas’s art. They are often not graceful, fragile swans but real, flesh-and-blood women. Much more interesting.

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