Edgar Degas, Female Nude, circa 1885/86Back

Edgar Degas
Female Nude
circa 1885/86

Pastel on compounded paper, transferred to pasteboard
71 x 70 cm
Museum Langmatt, Baden
Inv.-no. 136


As if by chance and quite unintentionally, we see a young female person: her eyes are closed, her head is thrown back, leaning back against an undefined floor or cloth behind her. A mystery remains as to whether the striking yellow curtain is intended to conceal or to reveal. Normally a protection against curious eyes, in this case it exposes what may have been meant to remain hidden. This setting makes us voyeurs of a quiet, dreaming, withdrawn moment—and there is nothing that we can do about it. In this era of political correctness, the exposed nakedness of the female figure causes us a moment of agitation. Can a rightly sensitized public still accept this picture? While critical reexaminations and corrections of our social norms are very necessary, they can also swiftly distort our perception of historical circumstances. Historical works of art take effect on us on at least two levels: that of their own time, and that of our own present-day.

This pastel work is among the major artworks in the oeuvre of Degas, although the artist reworked it in subsequent years. Light and shadow model the female body, lending it plasticity and tension, sensuality and intimacy. Degas deploys an astonish- ingly broad palette of colors to formulate the skin surface, and to lend it a shimmering vibrancy. Crosshatching supports the sparkling play of light and shadow. Closer examination reveals a startling combination of gray, green, and rose tones combined with a high degree of ab- straction, supported by a significant soft focus. As he does in other works, Degas deftly deploys the nature of the pastels; the natural soft focus of the pastel strokes mean that he does not have to depict this body and face in a fixed, chiseled fashion. On the contrary, this technique permits him to let the figure float in an undefined fashion, confidently transferring her into an awake dreaming state or a daydream flight from the banality of the day-to-day world. She is physically present, but in reality she is a great distance away. The face is lifted to the heavens in an almost religious manner, as if this person yearns for a different reality. This gesture of yearning expectation, however, might be read in a more mundane way, signaling an unspecified desire.

Markus Stegmann in: «Herzkammer», Museum Langmatt 2020