No other 19th-century artist made quite such a spectacle of the female body as Edgar Degas. Over three-quarters of his output of paintings, drawings, pastels, prints and sculptures consists of images of women, sometimes seen in the company of men or children, but more often alone or with other women. The nude figure is the subject of about a fifth of that total, from the copies and life studies he made as a young man in the 1850s through the early history paintings to the naturalistic studies of the 1870s and 1880s and beyond.
This encyclopedic survey of womanhood has recently attracted a great deal of attention, much of it stimulated by the massive 1988 exhibition of Degas’s work, and by the publication in the same year of Richard Thompson’s magisterial primer, Degas: The Nudes. Feminist art criticism, in particular, has added richness and edge to debates about the relationship between form and meaning. That relationship is the focus of Anthea Callen’s study of the visualisation of the female body in late 19th-century Paris.
Callen believes that art historians have tended to neglect visual analysis – which in her view should always be conducted in the presence of the work of art, rather than by means of reproductions – in favour of the study of ‘narrative content’. ‘Medium, composition, mise-en-page spatial organisation, pose and gesture, colour, light and shade, mark-making processes – indeed the whole physical object – must be taken into account, if the ideological structures they embody are to be understood.’ The emphasis on ‘ideological structures’ indicates that Callen believes formal analysis to be only the beginning of a process which would not be complete without a patient elaboration of historical context. In particular, she wishes to set the agitated response of Degas’s contemporaries to his images of women against the ‘unquestioning aesthetic approval’ those images have since received in ‘mainstream culture’. The dialectic between visual analysis of works of art and the elaboration of historical context shapes her argument.
Degas staked his claim to leadership of the realist faction among modern painters by showing at the 1881 Impressionist Exhibition two pastels which share the title Criminal Physiognomy, as well as The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, a sculpture modelled in wax and dressed in a real tutu, tights and ballet-slippers, as well as a horsehair wig. The titles used for the two pastels, both of which depicted members of a brutal teenage gang, invited a physiognomic reading. In his 1876 essay ‘Sur la physionomie’, Degas’s friend and critic Edmond Duranty had argued for the systematisation of traditional ideas about the relation between identity and appearance, then still associated primarily with the Swiss pastor Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801). Degas himself spoke of his ambition to ‘make of expressive heads (academic style) a study of modern feeling – it is Lavater, but a more relativistic Lavater, so to speak, with symbols of today rather than the past.’ Social Darwinism endorsed Duranty’s description of criminals as the ‘savages of the civilised world’. In at least two of the gang members, shown in strict profile so as to reveal the low forehead and prominent jaw considered characteristic of prehistoric man, Degas saw a ‘living anachronism’ of the sort defined by contemporary social theory. Callen demonstrates in her first chapter that the dancer statue has as much of a ‘criminal physiognomy’ as the accompanying pastels: comparison of the preparatory drawings and maquette with the finished sculpture reveals that Degas progressively flattened the dancer’s profile until it came to resemble the idea of criminal atavism advanced by physiognomic science.
Degas’s depictions of half-dressed or undressed women, which form the subject of Callen’s next four chapters, range from monotypes of brothel scenes through monotypes and pastels of scenes at the ballet to pastels of women bathing. The generally accepted view is that the brothel monotypes circulated privately, and were correspondingly frank in their voyeurism, while the more public dancer and bather pastels accorded their subjects a greater degree of modesty and self-respect. ‘It was in his monotypes,’ Richard Thompson observes in his study of the nudes, ‘rather than his pastels, that Degas most overtly exposed the female body to the male gaze.’ Callen disagrees. Her aim is to demonstrate that these diverse representations in fact constitute a ‘discursive whole’ which can best be understood in the context of contemporary anxieties about bourgeois male sexuality. To put the matter more crudely than she does, the bourgeois male wants to touch, but, afraid of contamination and revolted by his own appetites, chooses instead to gaze: in the street, at the ballet, in the art gallery.
According to Callen, the tension between desire and revulsion, closeness and distance, suffuses Degas’s portrayal of scenes at the ballet. Her brilliant discussions of a pastel, Ballet Dancer in Her Dressing-Room, which incorporates the ‘fractional – but crucial – presence’ of a male admirer, and of a monotype, The Ballet Master, and its cognate, illuminate the metamorphosis of working women into discreet objects of desire. It was Degas’s habit to use the second and weaker impression of his monotypes as the base on which to build new images with opaque media such as pastel, distemper and gouache. The monotype of The Ballet Master shows Jules Perrot rehearsing a principal dancer. When he reworked it in pastel and gouache, Degas added a number of other figures to the composition, including, at the right-hand edge, a male observer. He thus transformed a rehearsal scene into a scene whose meaning depends on the presence, again fractional but crucial, of the impassive observer: ‘illicit sexuality’ became, as Callen puts it, his ‘theme’.
Illicit sexuality is also the theme, she argues, of the Bathers pastels – ‘Suite of Female Nudes Bathing, Washing, Drying, Wiping Themselves, Combing Their Hair or Having Their Hair Combed’ – which formed the main part of Degas’s contribution to the eighth and final Impressionist Exhibition in 1886, and have remained at the centre of debates about his work ever since. Their multiple viewpoints – commonly a high viewpoint for the setting and a low one for the figure – reproduce the tension between desire and disgust which, Callen says, structured bourgeois male anxiety.
For the majority of the Bathers, the spectator both crouches with the figure, as if participating in its physicality, and stands erect gazing down on the scene from above: the distancing, controlling viewpoint. Effectively, the two viewpoints are themselves gendered: the low position equates with the feminine, the upright with the masculine. The viewpoints also inscribe the duality of touch and gaze: a desire for the physical, the tactile, the sensual, encoded as an atavistic absorption in the bodily self, and the fear of that desire signified by rational distance.
In Callen’s discussion of the Bathers pastels her argument relies almost exclusively on the response of contemporary critics, Joris-Karl Huysmans in particular; and it is at this point that signs of strain begin to show. Huysmans was a long-standing and assiduous critic of Degas, and the Bathers pastels provoked him into an ambiguous meditation on Degas’s view of the world and on his position among modern painters. He suggested that Degas had laid bare the revulsion felt by women at the sexual pleasures they take and provide. According to Callen, this ‘morbid fascination’ should be attributed not to the women, and not just to Huysmans, but to Degas as well. She argues that the bathers, like the sprawled prostitutes in the brothel monotypes, are exposed to the spectator as both subjects and objects of illicit sexuality and that they highlight what Huysmans believed to be the ‘alarming message’ that female sexual promiscuity held for bourgeois patriarchy. The burden of Callen’s historicism at this juncture rests on Huysmans’s words rather than on her own analysis of the pastels. It is odd, therefore, that she cites his essay not in the original but as it is quoted or paraphrased in a 1986 essay by Martha Ward.
According to Huysmans, the Bathers pastels demonstrate that all women, whatever their age or class, must ‘stoop’, in Ward’s paraphrase, ‘to remove filth from their bodies’. Callen comments that one stoops only to wash the lower half of one’s body, ‘which confirms that Huysmans’s “filth” was overtly sexual in nature’. Not quite. What Huysmans actually wrote was that the women must ‘se baisser, afin de masquer ses déchets par ses pansages’. It is not absolutely clear that the misogyny of this remark derives from anxieties about bourgeois male sexuality. The ‘bodily waste’ is not identified as sexual, and the activities of masking and grooming (‘pansages’) cannot be said to stop at removal. On the next page, Callen asserts that Degas’s handling of perspective suggested to Huysmans ‘degrading acts of self-mutilation on the part of the women’ (Ward’s paraphrase, again). ‘His words connect the Bathers’ actions with onanism,’ Callen adds. ‘To contemporary readers, this was a clear reference to the popular theories of criminal anthropologists like Cesare Lombroso, which categorised onanism as sexual deviancy.’ But they aren’t Huysmans’s words. They’re Ward’s paraphrase of his words, and a pretty loose one at that; you will search Huysmans’s essay in vain for references to self-mutilation. Ward has, I think, conflated a description of the maimed (though definitely not self-maimed) appearance of some of the bathers with a description of the redhead in the Musée d’Orsay Tub, who ‘disrupts’ herself in order to bring her arm round behind her shoulder (‘elle se rompt, à vouloir ramener le bras derrière l’épaule’). Surely there are simpler ways to masturbate.
These misreadings are the traces of a methodological double standard. Works of art are to be seen directly, and me ‘whole physical object’ is always to be taken into account in any analysis of them; but texts, even a text on whose exact wording the argument depends, can be read in paraphrase. Such double standards are evident in a great deal of interdisciplinary research. In this case, Callen’s rather loose way with Huysmans’s words is likely to fuel suspicion that her social history is less convincing than her art history. The reader cannot help but be struck by the contrast between Callen’s precise nuanced accounts of pastel or monotype technique and her ambitious generalisations about the scope and effect of ‘popular theories’. And there is something more fundamental at stake. In its entirety, Huysmans’s essay suggests that the Bathers pastels, although presented as a suite, do not constitute a ‘discursive whole’. If that is so, it follows that Degas’s depictions of the female body do not constitute the discursive whole that Callen claims.
During his review, Huysmans describes a number of individual pastels. But he begins by singling out one, and talking about it as though it were emblematic of Degas’s view of women. This is the Pearlman Foundation The Morning Bath, sometimes known as The Baker’s Wife, in which a fat blonde stands naked between tub and bed, turned away from us, clasping her buttocks. The Morning Bath was the pastel most frequently discussed by reviewers of the 1886 exhibition. George Moore called it the ‘chef d’oeuvre’: ‘The effect is prodigious. Degas has done what Baudelaire did – he has invented un frisson nouveau.’ This frisson was nouveau, perhaps, in its gratuitousness. Not engaged in any activity, not presenting a face to the world, and without, as far as one can tell, a thought in her head, this bather is, in Moore’s words, no more than a ‘lump of human flesh’: and as such is vulnerable to identification as the bearer of alarming messages. Here, indeed, is a misogynistic image which seems to have brought out the misogyny in some of the critics who wrote about it.
One can in fact devise a genealogy for The Morning Bath which connects it back to the sexually explicit brothel monotypes. The position and stance of the figure seem to owe something to a monotype of a woman bathing, The Tub, which also exists in a pastelised version (a drawing Degas made for that monotype in about 1880 may also have served as a point of departure for the figure of the boulangère): the bather monotypes of the late 1870s are themselves closely related to the brothel monotypes of the same period. There is evidence here of a systematic exploration, in various media, of female sexuality. It is characteristic of Callen’s strengths and weaknesses that she should provide a wonderfully acute analysis of The Tub, its cognate and the preparatory drawing, but make absolutely no attempt to connect them to The Morning Bath.
A reading of The Morning Bath which took full account of its specific genealogy would in fact expose the qualities which differentiate it from some of the other pastels in the Bathers series. The more one considers the gratuitous animality of the image and its derivation from the overt voyeurism of the brothel scenes, the more one begins to notice aspects of the other pastels which speak of different preoccupations. The boulangère is the only bather not actively engaged in washing or drying herself, not absorbed in effort. There is considerable depth to the room she occupies, as there is to those occupied by the women in the earlier brothel and bather monotypes; in the other pastels, space is flattened and compressed. The greater the depth, the more vivid the intimations of ‘narrative content’: the reviewers speculated eagerly about her profession, and wondered whether she has just got up or is preparing herself for bed. And then there are the defining gestures. If clasping your buttocks might signify vacuous bestiality, what about pressing a sponge to your neck, or a towel to your arm? Such gestures are surely neither vacuous nor bestial, but purposeful and entirely human.
Huysmans was as alert to the lyricism of some of the Bathers pastels as he was to the reductiveness of others. He began his account of them with the pallid mass displayed in The Morning Bath. He concluded it with the glowing skin of some of the other bathers (‘la suprême beauté des chairs bleuies ou rosées par l’eau’), and the oddly moving ordinariness of the implements which surround them: basins, phials, combs, brushes, jugs. If some of Degas’s images of women were motivated by revulsion, or by prurient curiosity, others were motivated by a kind of utopianism: they acknowledge the richness of gesture and activity which fills our hidden preliminary moments.
The bathers also appear to defy the physiognomic coding that depended on what Duranty called the ‘trait saillant’: where the face was concerned, the salient feature was usually the eyes; where the clothed body was concerned, usually the hands. Degas often stressed hands and eyes: in The Little Milliners, for example, a pastel shown at the 1886 exhibition, Callen shows that the fall of light makes it possible to distinguish between the thick, awkward hand of one milliner and the slender hand of her more genteel colleague. But the hands of the bathers, usually merged with towel or sponge, cannot be read like this. Furthermore, they direct our attention to stretches of the body’s surface which lie between its salient features: the inside of the arm, the nape of the neck, the flank, the top of the foot. Degas’s interest in these other areas of the body was longstanding. The Musée d’Orsay Dance Class, begun in 1873 and completed in 1875 or 1876, shows Jules Perrot planted heavily in the centre of the rehearsal-room while a dancer awaits instruction: their locked gaze is the pivot of the picture, defining a zone charged by sexual difference. At the far end of the room, however, and in the foreground, other dancers sit or stand, paying the central couple little attention. One of those in the foreground scratches her back, face tilted up in the pleasure of relief. Here, again, we have a powerful image of absorption in mundane activity and gesture. A preparatory drawing and an oil and gouache sketch show how carefully Degas had considered this particular gesture, which also appears in other rehearsal scenes. The main difference in the final version is that the dancer’s hand is partly masked (rendered illegible as a salient feature) by a ribbon. Some of Degas’s images fulfil and reinforce physiognomic coding; others subvert it.
Callen’s belief that Degas’s representations of women are all tarred to exactly the same degree with the same broad brush of bourgeois ideology makes it very hard for her to acknowledge differences of intention and achievement. Thus she is characteristically perceptive about a bather monotype, Woman in a Bath Sponging Her Leg, whose bestial protagonist and well-appointed setting link it to the brothel monotypes, but dismisses its pastelised cognate as merely ‘anodyne’. The effect of Degas’s revisions, however, was to humanise the bather, by softening her profile and the gesture with which she clasps the sponge to her leg, and also to remove any suggestion of luxury from the room in which she sits. Another comparable monotype, Woman Leaving Her Bath, was reworked in pastel to very similar effect. In both cases, the pastelised version represents a deliberate change of emphasis, and it might at least be worth asking what that was meant to achieve.
Callen’s final chapter includes a forceful and subtle reading of the pastel At the Louvre, which features the American painter Mary Cassatt and a female companion. The pay-off lies in an authoritative discussion of Degas’s ‘discordant spatial logic’: a logic which conspires to maroon the figure of Cassatt in a daze of provocative aimlessness. Callen argues persuasively that the aimlessness Degas attributed to some of the women he depicted was as reductive as the bestiality he attributed to others. The question which remains unanswered concerns the extent and prominence of this reductiveness in Degas’s work. Callen hasn’t persuaded me that the fascination which motivated and shaped Degas’s images of the female body was uniformly morbid.