Bathing Beauties

Edgar Degas
Prostitutes in the brothels of Paris in the 1800s inspired one of the world's most renowned Impressionist artists to create hundreds of works.

In 1886, the official Salon art exhibition of Paris introduced several colorful pastels by Edgar Degas (1834-1917). These portraits of bathing nudes--a theme to which Degas would return repeatedly for the rest of his life--were quite daring because the only women who bathed frequently in 19th century France were prostitutes. A few art critics followed this line of reasoning and expressed indignation, but the images were just ambiguous enough to avoid the kind of scandal Manet's "Olympia" had caused two decades earlier.

Real evidence that Degas' models were indeed prostitutes did not surface until later. From 1875 to 1885, Degas produced some 120 explicit monotypes of crudely drawn (but often cute) naked women and their customers in the parlors and boudoirs of high-class bordellos.


"Study", ca. 1879
Edgar Degas
These images were based on his own brothel experiences, reproduced from memory after Degas returned to his studio. He never exhibited them, except perhaps to close friends. Though about 70 of these monotypes were destroyed by Degas' prudish family after his death, art dealer Ambroise Vollard purchased the rest and made them famous as illustrations for his 1934 edition of Guy de Maupassant's classic novel The Tellier Brothel. Pablo Picasso later obtained 11 of the monotypes and, delighted, created spoofs of them in his characteristically bizarre style. Pictured in these is Degas, paintbrush in hand, among the prostitutes!

But how do the brothel monotypes pertain to the bather pastels? Several of the monotypes portray prostitutes bathing; these are virtually identical in style and content to the bather pastels--except for the inclusion of a fully clothed gentleman onlooker! There can be no doubt that the bather pastels are directly based on the brothel monotypes. By removing the men and recreating the works in glowing pastels, Degas cleverly made his brothel monotypes acceptable for public viewing while retaining his most important and cherished subjects: the prostitutes themselves.

"Woman Washing Hair", 1886?
Edgar Degas
"After the Bath:
Woman Drying Her Feet", 1886
Edgar Degas

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