In a densely patterned, dizzily colorful interior, Degas’s nude turns her back to us and bends to dry her side. Her pose, at once graceful and tortuous, lends this scene a frisson, encouraging us to believe we have surprised this woman in a private moment. Unseen windows bathe her back in light, conjured with electric streaks and scribbles of color, while her face, lost in shadow, seems to gaze into the opalescent depths of the tub beside her. Like the other items of furniture depicted, this tub at once corroborates and undermines the fiction of a moment surprised, intersecting abruptly with a folding screen and disappearing from view. Along with the expanse of tufted carpet, the overstuffed canapé, and the cascade of drapery at left, these objects form a dreamy indoor landscape—less the ordinary terrain of a domestic interior than an intimate corner of Degas’s studio.
Dated to 1882-1885 by Paul-André Lemoisne in volumne II of his 1946-1948 catalogue raisonné of Degas’s work, this pastel was likely made at a somewhat later moment, 1886 or after, when, having achieved financial independence, Degas had all but ceased to exhibit, retreating into the private world of his studio to produce increasingly bold, experimental work: wax and wire sculptures, oil paintings covered with fingerprints, pastels scratched out in vibrating, anti-naturalistic colors. The influence of a much younger artist, Paul Gauguin, was key to Degas’s evolution in this period: we may see his mark in the dazzling, dissonant hues of this pastel, which already predicts the thickets of pattern and color found in the work of Gauguin’s followers, the Nabis Bonnard and Vuillard, at the turn of the century.
Like so many ambitious nudes of Degas’s later career, this work was never exhibited during his lifetime. He made numerous drawings and prints depicting models in essentially the same pose. Although, by the later 1880s, the artist’s ceaseless explorations of a single form or attitude could no longer be neatly sorted into the categories of “preparatory studies” and “finished works,” this particular series seems to have culminated in the present pastel; no other portrayal of this subject matches its density of touch and chromatic power.