The Bathers


Edgar Degas ( French, 1834 - 1917 )

c. 1890–1895
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General Description

Edgar Degas created this monumental bather composition in the mid-1890s, probably after he had seen the great Cézanne exhibition held at Vollard's gallery in the spring of 1895. Cézanne's work was perhaps the impetus for Degas to move his bathers out-of-doors and away from the urban brothels, boudoirs, and bathrooms that he had favored. It may also have been Cézanne's example that pushed Degas to create these bathers on such a large scale. The Reves pastel is of identical dimension to another outdoor bather scene, now in the Art Institute of Chicago, and it is possible that the two works were conceived as pendants. However, they were neither completed nor exhibited as such during the painter's lifetime, and both were included in the huge auctions held in Paris after the painter's death. The principal oddities of the Reves pastel are the two figures on the right. When one compares the sheet with an even larger charcoal drawing with the same figures that were also included in the Degas sales (Lemoisne 1946, vol. 3, no. 1070), it becomes clear that Degas cropped both these figures from the Reves sheet so as to concentrate the composition on the bather combing her hair. It is likely that the Reves sheet was traced from the original charcoal version onto a very large sheet of tracing paper, which was probably chosen to match the dimensions of the Chicago painting. These immense bathers have an undeniable physicality. Even the hair of the central figure seems to have weight as it flows over her head across the front of her body. Degas's inclusion of a cow in a nearby field can be read in two ways- as a pictorial indicator of the rusticity of the subject or as an unsubtle analogy between woman and barnyard beast. In spite of Degas's well-known misogynist tendencies, the latter reading seems farfetched, and the more likely interpretation of this scene, and of other outdoor nudes by Degas, is that it was intended to be a rural counter to the bathers in interior settings for which the artist was already famous. Few pastels from Degas's late career are as magisterial, ambitious, and powerful as the Reves "Bathers." "Impressionist Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture from the Wendy and Emery Reves Collection," page 119

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