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Degas was closest to Renoir in the impressionist’s circle. He started his apprenticeship in 1853 at the studio of Louis-Ernest Barrias and, beginning in 1854, studied under Louis Lamothe, who revered Ingres above all others and transmitted his adoration for this master to Edgar Degas. Starting in 1854, Degas frequently traveled to Italy where he copied from the Old Masters. His drawings and sketches already revealed very clear preferences, especially in Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Mantegna. After his first compositions, which depicted horses, Degas made yet another discovery. His first painting devoted solely to the ballet was Le Foyer de la danse à l’Opéra de la rue Le

Peletier (The Dancing Anteroom at the Opera on Rue Le Peletier, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). In a carefully constructed composition, with groups of fi gures balancing one another to the left and the right, each ballet dancer is involved in her own activity, each moving in a separate manner from the others. Extended observation and an immense number of sketches were essential to executing such a task. Ballet would remain his passion until the end.

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Edgar

DEGAS

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Authors:
Natalia Brodskaïa
Edgar Degas
Layout:
Baseline Co. Ltd
61A-63A Vo Van Tan Street
4th Floor
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam
© Confidential Concepts, worldwide, USA
© Parkstone Press International, New York, USA
Image-Bar www.image-bar.com

All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced or adapted without the permission of
the copyright holder, throughout the world. Unless otherwise specified, copyright on
the works reproduced lies with the respective photographers, artists, heirs or estates.
Despite intensive research, it has not always been possible to establish copyright
ownership. Where this is the case, we would appreciate notification.
ISBN: 978-1-78042-745-4

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Natalia Brodskaïa
Edgar Degas

EDGAR DEGAS

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CONTENTS

Edgar Degas and his Works
Letters by Degas

7
49

Notes

196

Index

197

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EDGAR DEGAS AND
HIS WORKS

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dgar Degas was closest to Pierre-Auguste Renoir in the Impressionist’s circle, for both
favoured the animated Parisian life of their day as a motif in their paintings. Degas did
not attend Charles Gleyre’s studio; most likely he first met the future Impressionists at the

Café Guerbois. It is not known exactly where he met Édouard Manet. Perhaps they were
introduced to one another by a mutual friend, the engraver Félix Bracquemond, or perhaps
Manet, struck by Degas’ audacity, first spoke to him at the Louvre in 1862. Two months after
meeting the Impressionists, Degas exhibited his canvases with Claude Monet’s group, and
became one of the most loyal of the Impressionists: not only did he contribute works to each of
their exhibitions except the seventh, he also participated very a; ctively in organising them. All of
which is curious, because he was rather distinct from the other Impressionists.
Degas came from a completely different milieu than that of Monet, Renoir, and Alfred Sisley.
His grandfather René-Hilaire de Gas, a grain merchant, had been forced to flee from France
to Italy in 1793 during the French Revolution. Business prospered for him there. After
establishing a bank in Naples, de Gas wed a young girl from a rich Genoan family. Edgar
preferred to write his name simply as Degas, although he happily maintained relations with his
numerous de Gas relatives in Italy.
Enviably stable by nature, Degas spent his entire life in the neighbourhood where he was
born. He scorned and disliked the Left Bank, perhaps because that was where his mother had
died. In 1850, Edgar Degas completed his studies at Lycée Louis-le-Grand, and, in 1852,
received his degree in law. Because his family was rich, his life as a painter unfolded far more
smoothly than for the other Impressionists.
Degas started his apprenticeship in 1853 at the studio of Louis-Ernest Barrias and,
beginning in 1854, studied under Louis Lamothe, who revered Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
above all others and transmitted his adoration for this master to Edgar Degas. Degas’ father
was not opposed to his son’s choice. On the contrary: when, after the death of his wife, he
moved to Rue Mondovi, he set up a studio for Edgar on the fourth floor, from which the Place
de la Concorde could be seen over the rooftops. Edgar’s father himself was an amateaur
painter and connoisseur; he introduced his son to his many friends. Among them were Achille
Deveria, curator of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Bibliothèque Nationale, who
permitted Edgar to copy from the drawings of the Old Masters: Rembrandt, Dürer, Goya,
Holbein. His father also introduced him to his friends in the Valpinçon family of art collectors,
at whose home the future painter met the great Ingres. All his life Degas would remember Ingres’
advice as one would remember a prayer: “Draw lines … Lots of lines, whether from memory
or from life” (Paul Valéry, Écrits sur l’Art [Writings on Art], Paris, 1962, p. 187).

Self-Portrait Saluting, 1865.
Oil on canvas, 92.5 x 66.5 cm.
Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon.
Young Spartans Exercising, c. 1860.
Oil on canvas, 109.5 x 155 cm.
The National Gallery, London.

Starting in 1854, Degas travelled frequently to Italy: first to Naples, where he made the
acquaintance of his numerous cousins, and then to Rome and Florence where he copied
tirelessly from the Old Masters. His drawings and sketches already revealed very clear
preferences: Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Andrea Mantegna, but also

Scene of War in the Middle Ages
(detail), 1865.
Oil on paper, on canvas, 83.5 x 148.5 cm.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris. (pp. 10-11)

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Benozzo Gozzoli, Ghirlandaio, Titian, Fra Angelico, Uccello, and Botticelli. He went to
Orvieto Cathedral specifically to copy from the frescoes of Luca Signorelli, and visited Perugia
and Assisi. The pyrotechnics of Italian painting dazzled him. Degas was lucky like no other.
One can only marvel at the sensitivity Edgar’s father demonstrated with respect to his son’s
vocation, at his insight into his son’s goals, and at the way he was able to encourage the young
painter. “You’ve taken a giant step forwards in your art, your drawing is strong, your colour tone
is precise,” he wrote his son. “You no longer have anything to worry about, my dear Edgar,
you are progressing beautifully. Calm your mind and, with tranquil and sustained effort, stick to
the furrow that lies before you without straying. It’s your own – it is no one else’s. Go on working
calmly, and keep to this path” (J. Bouret, Degas, Paris, 1987, p. 23).
In 1855, Degas began to pursue studies at the École des beaux-arts, but did not show any
particular zeal for his work. Degas preferred to learn at the museums. As soon as his first
vacation arrived, Degas took the opportunity to return to Italy. There, at the Villa Medici, fate
brought him into contact with residents of the École des beaux-arts who would become his
friends: the painters Léon Bonnat, Henri Fantin-Latour, Élie Delaunay, Gustave Moreau, the
sculptors Paul Dubois and Henri Chapu, and the musician Georges Bizet, who had not yet
composed Carmen. Their gatherings in the oldneighbourhoods of Rome, and the picnics with
the beauties of the Italian landscape in the background, would remain impressed on his
memory to the end of his life.
In the 1850s, Degas started doing portraits and self-portraits. From the very beginning in
Degas’ portraits, one senses an attentive observer of human psychology. In Italy he began
to paint portraits of his family members. One of his very first is an admirable portrait of his
grandfather, René-Hilaire de Gas, it is reminicent of Titian’s portraits to mind. Its professional
quality and Degas’ ease in handling the idiom of classical painting makes it possible to
compare it to portraits by Ingres. This canvas foretells a future for the painter as a great
portraitist. And he indeed became a remarkable portraitist. During the 1850s Degas began
to paint the portraits of members of the Bellelli family, that of his father’s sister, who had
married Baron Bellelli. He did composition studies, sketched the baron and his wife, painted
his own cousins Giulia and Giovannini, and studied the hands of his subjects. The result was
a large painting – 200 by 253 centemetres, and painted in Paris, The Bellelli Family, that
recalls the portraits of Hans Holbein, Jean Clouet, or Diego Velázquez. But the sky-blue
wallpaper with small white flowers lightens the colour scheme, and gives the painting the
cozy, intimate feel of a life of ease. The classical balance of the composition is broken,
completely unexpectedly by a single detail: the master of the house, seated with his back to
the viewer, turns so spontaneously and with such liveliness towards his wife that, in an instant,
Mlle Fiocre in the Ballet “La Source”
(detail), 1866-1868.
Oil on canvas, 110.5 x 91.4 cm.
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.

12

the impression of models in the act of posing vanishes. With his solid training in classical
principles, the painter is beginning to turn, little by little, towards the modern life which will
soon absorb him completely.

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The enormous painting The Daughter of Jephthah is full of the influences of different masters,
from Nicolas Poussin to Raphael, and Eugène Delacroix. The painting Scene of War from the

Middle Ages (pp. 10-11) or The Misfortunes of the City of Orléans, with its baffling subject,
could have been drawn from a tale that Degas’ grandfather, who was originally from Orléans,
had told him. It reminds one of Delacroix. As early as the 1850s he discovered two absolutely
new and unexpected subjects: horses and the ballet. In 1859, the Valpinçon family invited Edgar
to spend a few weeks at their estate in Ménil-Hubert-sur-Orne where they had a horse-breeding
farm. His eye noted their proportions, the particularities of the horse’s skeleton, and the play of
its muscles. After his first rather complex compositions depicting racetracks, Degas learned the
art of translating the nobility and elegance of horses, their nervous movements, and the formal
beauty of their musculature The Parade (Racehorses in front of the Tribunes).
Around the middle of the 1860s Degas made yet another discovery. In 1866, he painted
his first composition with ballet as a subject: Mademoiselle Fiocre in the Ballet “La Source” (p. 13).
Degas frequently attended the Paris Opera, where, in 1866, Eugénie Fiocre often danced

The Spring. It’s true that, in this first painting, the ballet itself was not yet depicted. It was
more a portrait of the ballet dancer. Mlle Fiocre is seated on stage surrounded by Oriental
scenery with a horse at her side. Degas had always been a devotee of the theatre, but
from this time on, it would become more and more the focus of his art. It gradually
permeated his painting through his portraiture. After Mlle Fiocre, he turned to painting
portraits of musicians.
In 1869 he did an admirable portrait of his father with Lorenzo Pagans, the musician:
Degas’ Father Listening to Lorenzo Pagans Playing the Guitar. Pagans occupies the foreground,
wholly absorbed in his music, a guitar in his hands. In spite of the almost classical construction
of the composition and the seemingly static nature of the subjects, there is action in this painting:
Pagans is gently strumming and Degas’ father is listening. This becomes a characteristic
aspect of Degas’ art. Like Manet and the Impressionists, he rejects subject and literary narrative,
but in his own paintings there is always something happening. Also in 1869, Degas painted

The Orchestra at the Opera (p. 17).
At first glance this painting is also just a portrait of musicians.In fact it is a portrait of a whole
group of the painter’s friends, whom his imagination has gathered together in the orchestra pit.
The faces are painted in close up, they are individualised, they have character, and, above all,
they are not posing, but, instead, are engrossed in the music. Before Edgar Degas, nothing like
this had ever been done before. Three years later, in 1872, Degas’ first painting devoted solely
to the ballet appeared: Le Foyer de la danse à l’Opéra de la rue Le Peletier (The Dance Foyer

at the Opera on the rue Le Peletier) (p. 23). Degas moved from the theatre on to the rehearsal
halls, where the dancers practised and took their lessons. This was how Degas arrived at the
second sphere of that immediate, everyday life that was of interest to him. The ballet would
remain his passion until the end of his days.

Woman Ironing, c. 1869.
Oil on canvas, 92.5 x 73.5 cm.
Neue Pinakothek, Munich.

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When the Franco-Prussian war began in 1870, Degas enlisted in the French National
Guard artillery. It was during his service in the army that he learned he might lose his eyesight,
which would have a tragic impact on his life.
In 1872, Degas went to New Orleans to visit his mother’s relatives who were cotton traders.
Although the purpose of the trip was business, he sketched a great deal. Though by nature
disinclined to react with much emotion, he was happy with his new impressions all the same.
For the 1874 Impressionist exhibition, Degas contributed canvases and drawings with motifs
that, from then on, would forever be associated with him: the theatre, ballet classes,
washerwomen, racetracks, and nudes. In the exhibition that followed, portraits, milliners, and
paintings executed from impressions of New Orleans appeared. Cabarets and the circus would
come later. At the beginning of his development as an Impressionist, two paintings represented
extremely important steps.
Degas was the only painter of his generation who took photography seriously. He took
intrest in it rather late, in the middle of the 1880s, and bought a camera around 1895. This
proves that the unique features of Degas’ compositions do not relate to the direct influence of
the camera, but to the specificity of his own vision of the world. When he began to take
photographs himself, it was his vision that influenced the compositions of his photographs, not
the other way around.
In 1876, Degas painted The Absinthe Drinker (Glass of Absinthe) (p. 41). At that time
the artists had already abandoned the Café Guerbois and reunited at La Nouvelle Athènes
in the Place Pigalle. Degas had lived in this neighbourhood for a large portion of his life:
in rue Blanche, rue Fontaine, and rue Saint-Georges. He could now regularly be found in
the evenings on the terrace of La Nouvelle Athènes with Édouard Manet, Émile Zola, and
various Impressionists and critics. For his new painting he asked his friend, engraver
Marcellin Desboutin, just back from Florence, and the pretty actress Ellen Andrée to pose
for him. Ellen Andrée would later pose at the same location, on the terrace of La Nouvelle
Athènes, for Manet’s The Plum, and also for Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party on the

island of Croissy. Degas depicted her as a prostitute of the Parisian streets with a lost look,
sitting absolutely still before a glass of absinthe, absorbed in thought. At her side, a pipe
clenched between his teeth and hat pushed to the back of his head, one of the café
regulars is seated. He also seems to be looking into the distance, not aware of the woman
The Orchestra at the Opera (detail),
c. 1870.
Oil on canvas, 56.5 x 46 cm.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

seated just beside him. Squeezed into a corner behind little empty tables, they are almost
touching one other, but each is in their own world. Again, Degas has succeeded in setting
down on the canvas something almost impossible to capture: the bitter solitude of a human
being in one of the merriest, liveliest cities in the world.

Interior (The Rape) (detail), c. 1868-1869.
Oil on canvas, 81.3 x 116.3 cm.
The Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts,
Philadelphia. (pp. 18-19)

16

One of the main differences between Degas’ ideas and those of the other Impressionists
was his point of view regarding open-air painting. For all the others, open-air painting was
both an aim and an essential condition of their work. However, with Degas, it was not living

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nature that caused a landscape to appear on paper or canvas. On the contrary, it was a
shape or a line seen at random that would give birth to a landscape in his imagination.
Degas’ odd attitude towards landscapes had two explanations, however. Firstly, Degas’
greatest misfortune must not be forgotten, the weakness of his eyesight. What was most
important, though, was that Degas had more confidence in his prodigious memory than in a
fleeting impression.
The second difference between Degas and the Impressionists was in his attitude towards
drawing. Renoir and his friends had been accused of not knowing how to draw because, in
their work, the vibrations of air and light had the effect of blurring their line; their colour
predominated over their drawing. For Degas drawing always came first.
After the death of Degas’ father in 1873, the Degas family bank failed and there was
nothing left for the painter but to rely on his art. Like the other Impressionists, he suffered from
the fact that his paintings were impossible to sell and, like Renoir, Monet, Sisley, and Camille
Pissarro, he went to Durand-Ruel to ask for money. And, like Sisley, he never painted
commissions, he worked only on what interested him. He kept repeating, reworking, and
varying his same favourite motifs, he liked improving himself. His friends recounted how he
could start over and over again on one and the same work without ever fully completing it.
At the close of the 1870s, Degas added cabaret scenes to his repertoire – before Manet
painted his Bar at the Folies-Bergère. What is represented in The Absinthe Drinker is, in fact,
the work of a stage or film director. In 1877, Degas painted two paintings, Women on a

Café Terrace, sometimes called Café, Boulevard Montmartre (p. 69) and Café Concert at
Les Ambassadeurs (p. 128). In these, the painter seems to be representing a moment
glimpsed at random. Objectively and instantaneously the painter sets down on canvas the
posturing, gestures, and expressions of the ladies as they chatter among themselves. “M.
Degas seems to have hurled a challenge at the Phillistines, that is to say the classicists,” wrote
the critic Alexandre Pothey in an article on the third exhibition of the Impressionists. “The
women in Women on a Café Terrace are frighteningly realistic. These painted, withered
creatures, reeking of vice, cynically recounting the events and gestures of the day – you’ve
seen them, you know them, and you’ll come across them again on the boulevards soon” (L.
Venturi, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 303).
It seems strange that as refined an artist as Degas, a frequenter of society salons, would
have been aware in Paris of those washerwomen and pressers who became the objects of his
study. Yet, when he was in New Orleans and felt nostalgic for France, it was the washerwomen
who embodied and symbolised the French life of his time for him, to which he dreamt of
returning as quickly as possible. He drew women leaning over their irons and found an original
grace and beauty in their repetitive movements. His firm line set down the mechanics of their
movements, while the colour, by means of a few light patches, gave the appearance of a black
and white photograph as it is being developed (Two Laundresses, p. 54).

The Ballet from ”Robert le Diable“, 1871.
Oil on canvas, 66 x 54.3 cm.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York.

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He painted ballet classes during lessons and as the dancers rested. It was rare for a ballet
dancer to appear on his canvases as an airy, ethereal vision. Drawing, in these instances,
makes way for colour to play the principal role. In the unreal atmosphere of the stage, the pink,
sky-blue, and white tutus glitter and disappear. Most often, the ballet dancer in a Degas work
is shown simply as a woman exhausted from pushing herself too hard. She has lost her stage
charm. She exercises endlessly at the bar, and she strains as she stretches her tired legs. She
is weak and miserable. The truth of everyday life would enter in at the moments when the
ballet dancer was protected from the gaze of strangers, or when, bent over with fatigue, she
would have to go through the humiliation of a long wait to be seen by the theatrical director
(Waiting, New York, Havemeyer Collection).
At the sixth Impressionist exhibition everyone marvelled at the wax statuette of a ballet
dancer, almost one metre high, The Little Ballet Dancer (p. 107). The tutu was of real white
tulle, the bodice of waxed yellow canvas, the hair was knotted in a ponytail with a red
satin ribbon, and the ballet slippers had yellow laces. Upright, in ballet position, her hands
are behind her back, her head thrown back. “With her tarlatan petticoat, skinny, and as
ugly as can be,” wrote the critic Charles Ephrussi, “but standing erect, arching back, and
swaying, with that angular movement common to dance apprentices. She is rendered
firmly, boldly, and with shrewdness, in a way that conveys, with infinite wisdom, the private
demeanor and manner as well as the profession, embodied in the person … An ordinary
artist would have turned this dancer into a puppet. M. Degas has turned her into a distinct,
incisive, technically precise work, and in a truly original form” (Degas Inédit [Degas Unedited],
op. cit., p. 336-337).
The nude was no less important as an object of study for Degas: he drew it tirelessly all his
life. “The same subject has to be done ten, a hundred times. Nothing in art should look like an
accident, even movement” (J. Bouret, op. cit., p. 58). Movement, still more movement, always
movement … Professional models would pose for Degas; his demands seemed absurd to them.
Instead of sitting the young woman down or placing her, standing, in a well defined pose, he
asked her to dry herself and do up her hair. Was the painter even drawing her? No: he stood
standing against the wall, arms folded across his chest, watching her. Occasionally he climbed
on a stool and watched her from above. Only after the model left would he begin to draw.
Degas gained access to a world that, until then, had never let people from the outside
The Dance Foyer at the Opera on the
rue Le Petelier, 1872.
Oil on canvas, 32.7 x 46.3 cm.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

come near: he represented women in their private surroundings, which belonged to them
alone. He drew them in poses in which it is impossible to pose. She washes, squatting, in the
bathtub. She combs her long hair, which a moment later she will toss back. Twisting around
clumsily, she dries her back. Each drawing and each pastel seems to represent one image from

The Dancing Class (detail), c. 1870.
Oil on wood, 19.7 x 27 cm.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York. (pp. 24-25)

22

an endless film of women washing and grooming themselves.
As he grew older, Degas made more and more sculpture. “With my eyesight going,” he
said to the dealer Vollard, “I now have to take up blind men’s work” (J. Bouret, op. cit., p. 209).

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He modelled, in wax, what he knew best: ballet dancers, horses, and nudes. Ambroise Vollard
was crestfallen to see how Degas would destroy his wax masterpieces so he could have the
pleasure, as he put it, of starting them again. In his last years, Degas was almost completely
blind. He died 27 September 1917. Among the group of several friends who came to
accompany him to Montmartre cemetery there was only one Impressionist: Claude Monet. The
other friend who had survived him, Renoir, was confined to an invalid’s armchair. In the midst
of the First World War, the painter’s death went almost unnoticed.
Around the time the notorious 1863 Salon des Refusés signalled the clear distinction in
French painting between a revolutionary avant-garde and the conservative establishment,
Edgar Degas painted a self-portrait which could hardly have looked less like that of a
potential revolutionary. He appears a perfect middle-class gentleman or, as the Cubist painter
André Lhote put it, like ‘a disastrously incorruptible accountant’. Wearing the funereal uniform
of the 19th-century male bourgeois which, in the words of Baudelaire, made them look like
‘an immense cortège of undertakers’ mutes’, Degas politely doffs his top hat and guardedly
returns the scrutiny of the viewer. A photograph taken a few years earlier, preserved in the
French National Library, shows him looking very much the same, although his posture is more
tense and awkward than in the painting.
The Degas in the photo holds his top hat over his genital area in a gesture unconsciously
reminiscent of that of the male peasant in Jean-François Millet’s Angelus. Salvador Dalí’s
provocative explanation of the peasant’s uncomfortable stance was that he was attempting to
hide a burgeoning erection. Degas’ sheepish and self-conscious expression also suggests an
element of sexual modesty. For an artist who once said that he wanted to be both ‘illustrious
and unknown’, any speculation about his sexuality would have seemed to him an unpardonable
and irrelevant impertinence.
Nevertheless, the peculiar nature of much of Degas’ subject matter, the stance of
unrelenting misogyny he adopted, and the very lack of concrete clues about his personal
relationships have fuelled such speculation from the beginning. As early as 1869 Manet
confided to the Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot, with whom Degas was conducting a
bizarre and somewhat unconvincing flirtation, ‘He isn’t capable of loving a woman, much less
of telling her that he does or of doing anything about it.’ In the same year, Morisot wryly
described in a letter to her sister how Degas ‘came and sat beside me, pretending to court
me – but this courting was confined to a long commentary on Solomon’s proverb, ‘Woman is
the desolation of the righteous’...’.
Rumours of a sexual or emotional involvement with another gifted female painter, the
American Mary Cassatt, can also be fairly discounted with confidence, although the fact
that Cassatt burnt Degas’ letters to her might suggest that there was something that she
wished to hide. Degas’ failure to form a serious relationship with any member of the
opposite sex has been attributed to a variety of causes, such as the death of his mother

Orchestra Musicians, 1872.
Oil on canvas, 69 x 49 cm.
Städel-Museum, Frankfurt.

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when he was at the sensitive age of thirteen, an early rejection in love, and impotence
resulting from a venereal infection. This last theory is based on a jocular conversation between
Degas and a model towards the end of his life and need not be taken too seriously.
In 1858, Degas formed an intense and sentimental friendship with the painter Gustave
Moreau. The emotional tone of Degas’ letters to the older artist might suggest to modern eyes
an element of homosexuality in their relationship. ‘I am really sending this to you to help me
wait for your return more patiently, whilst hoping for a letter from you ... I do hope you will
not put off your return. You promised that you would spend no more than two months in Venice
and Milan.’
But whereas Moreau’s paintings exude an air of latent or even overt homosexuality, the same
cannot be said of Degas’. There are accounts of Degas chatting in mellow and contented
moods with models and dancers towards the end of his life, but it seems likely that, in common
with many 19th-century middle-class men, he was afraid of and found it hard to relate to women
of his own class. His more outrageously misogynistic pronouncements convey a strong sense of
his fear.
‘What frightens me more than anything else in the world is taking tea in a fashionable
tea-room. You might well imagine you were in a hen-house. Why must women take all that
trouble to look so ugly and be so vulgar?’ or ‘Oh! Women can never forgive me. They hate
me. They can feel that I leave them defenceless. I show them without their coquetry, as no more
than brute animals cleaning themselves! ... They see me as their enemy – fortunately, for if they
did like me, that would be the end of me!’
Degas’ portraits of middle-class women have faces, unlike his dancers, prostitutes,
laundresses, milliners, and bathers who are usually stereotyped or quite literally faceless. On the
other hand, these middle-class women may seem intelligent, rational, and sensitive, but are
nevertheless a grim lot, without warmth or sensuality. Many of Degas’ female relatives seem to
be overwhelmed by frigid and loveless melancholy. His nieces Giovanna and Giulia Bellelli
turn from one another without the slightest trace of sisterly intimacy or affection. Grimmest of all
is the portrait of his aunt, the Duchess of Montejasi Cicerale, and her two daughters in which
the implacable old woman seems to be separated from her offspring by an unbridgeable
physical and psychological gulf.
The theme of tension and hostility between the sexes underlies many of Degas’ most
ambitious works of the 1860s, both in genre-like depictions of modern life such as Pouting
and Interior (pp. 18-19) (formerly known as The Rape and probably inspired by Émile Zola’s
novel Thérèse Raquin) and in elaborate historical scenes such as Young Spartans Exercising
(p. 8) and Scene of War in the Middle Ages (pp. 10-11). This last – the most lurid and
A Woman Ironing, 1873.
Oil on canvas, 54.3 x 39.4 cm.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York.

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sensational picture Degas ever painted – shows horsemen shooting arrows at a group of nude
women. The women’s bodies show no wounds or blood, but fall in poses suggestive more of
erotic frenzy than of the agony of death. From the time that Degas reached maturity as an

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artist in the 1870s, most of his depictions of women – apart from a few middle-class
portraits – include more than a suggestion that the women are prostitutes. Prostitution in
19th-century Paris took a wide variety of forms, from the bedraggled street-walker desperate
for a meal to the ‘Grande Horizontale’ able to charge a fortune for her favours. Virtually any
woman who had to go out to work and earn a living was regarded as also liable to sell her
body. So it was that Degas’ depictions of singers, dancers, circus performers, and even
milliners and laundresses could have disreputable connotations for his contemporaries that
might not always be apparent today.
It was during the Second Empire (from 1852 to 1871) that Paris consolidated its reputation
as the pleasure capital of Europe. That ‘love for sale’ was one of the chief attractions of Paris
for foreign visitors is made abundantly clear by the operetta La Vie Parisienne composed by
Jacques Offenbach for the 1867 Paris World Exhibition. The libretto, written by Degas’ close
friend Ludovic Halévy and his collaborator Henri Meilhac, shamelessly celebrates Paris’
reputation as ‘the modern Babylon’ and a great focus for venal love.
Amongst the characters are a ‘Grande Horizontale’ with the outrageously punning name
of Métella (roughly translatable as ‘put it in’), a pretty glove-maker called Gabrielle who
might have stepped from one of Degas’ pastels of milliners, a Brazilian millionaire who wants
to lose his fortune to Parisian ‘hussies’, a Swedish Baroness who longs to hear the singer
Thérésa and her husband who wants to experience and enjoy everything at once jusque-là
(to the fullest),
Prostitution was a major theme of French writers and artists throughout the second half of the
19 century. Literary interest in prostitution peaked around 1880. Edmond de Goncourt
th

published La Fille Elisa in 1877, and Émile Zola, Nana in 1879-1880. Guy de Maupassant
made his reputation with Boule de Suif in 1880 and followed it up the next year with the
endearing La Maison Tellier. Degas’ references to the Parisian traffic in female flesh were often
scrupulously discreet – a glimpse of a gentleman’s black trousers amongst the scenery of the
opera, or of the gaudy plumage of a courtesan’s hat at the race-course as her carriage passes
from view. Sometimes it is no more than a pervasively suggestive atmosphere that would
nonetheless have been quite perceptible to men of Degas’ class and tastes.
This murky world of female commerce, in which predatory top-hat wearing males indulged,
is illuminated in a fascinating, if somewhat lurid, way by two anonymous Parisian publications
of the 1880s, when Degas was at the height of his career. Ces Demoiselles de l’Opéra,
published in 1887 and attributed to Vieil abonné (‘a long-time season-ticket-holder’), offers a
survey of all the female dancers that were active at the new Paris Opera and looks back
nostalgically to the 1860s when Degas also began to interest himself in ballet at the old house
in the rue Le Peletier.
The tone of the book is gossipy and mildly lecherous. The Vieil abonné seems more
interested in the physical attractions of the dancers and in the racy details of their private lives

The Dance Class, c. 1873-1876.
Oil on canvas, 85.5 x 75 cm.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

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than he is in the finer points of their dancing techniques. Mlle Eugénie Fiocre, the only female
dancer described in the book and identifiably painted by Degas, is said to have ‘a nose for
which an umbrella would be useful’ – Degas’ study of her shows that she had a rather turned
up and exceptionally pretty nose – ‘but what a figure! One should go down on one’s knees in
front of it – and behind!’

Ces Demoiselles de l’Opéra vividly conveys the flavour of the flirtatious conversations that
Degas enjoyed with his young dancer models. Daniel Halévy, the son of Degas’ old friend
Ludovic, noted that when Degas was with dancers he ‘finds them all charming, makes excuses
for anything they do, and laughs at everything they say’.
The Vieil abonné recorded the foibles, the remarks, and the little habits of the dancers with
the same affectionate indulgence. So we hear, for example, that the only distinguishing
characteristic of Léontine Beaugrand was an inordinate love of chocolates, and how la petite
Paillier was outraged when complimented by an admirer as looking like a Boucher, thinking
that he was comparing her with a butcher. The Pretty Women of Paris was published in English
in 1883, and describes itself on the title page as a ‘Complete Directory and Guide to Pleasure
for Visitors to the City of Gaiety’.
The information offered about Parisian women is so comprehensive and so detailed that
it cannot possibly have been compiled by one man. The tone throughout, though, is
consistent – scurrilous and often misogynistic. It gives the reader the impression of coming face
to face with all the anonymous and faceless women we find in Degas’ oeuvre, from star
dancers to milliners and laundresses.
On the first page we encounter Ellen Andrée, who modelled for Degas’ The Absinthe

Drinker (p. 41). She is a very pretty fair woman, whose artistic talents are small, although her
body is in splendid proportion for such a tiny creature. Her principal lovers count amongst the
artists of the capital, for whom she has often posed as model. She has been photographed in
many poses, always without any clothing, and these studies from life could have been
purchased all over Paris for a small sum. She is very straightforward and kind-hearted, but
cannot write or read easily, her education having been greatly neglected. She is about twentyfour years old.
It seems that the authors underestimated her age, her intelligence, and her dramatic
talents. She is unlikely to have been sixteen when she posed as the weary prostitute in Degas’

The Absinthe Drinker in 1876, she clearly had the wit to hold her own among the rip-roaring
company of Degas and his friends at the Café de la Nouvelle Athènes in the 1870s, and she
went on to enjoy a long and distinguished career in the theatre.
Dancer Standing, her Hands Crossed
Behind her Back, 1873.
Black and white chalk on mounted grey
paper, 45 x 29.7 cm.
Private collection.

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On later pages of this ‘Directory and Guide’, we meet Thérèse Bréval, who ‘was a
ballet-girl for a time, but soon grew tired of kicking up her legs for such small wages’; Marie
Folliot, ‘formerly an assistant in a milliner’s shop, but her beauty singled her out for the advances
of the seducer...’; Blanche de Labarre, employed in the corset department of a large store

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where ‘the habit of continually taking off and trying on so many corsets seems to have had an
effect on her morals and made her ever afterwards only too ready to unlace her own...’; Amélie
Latour, ‘a simple laundress’, who ‘used to carry washing home to the customers, who, in return
for the clean linen she brought, would often rumple her chemise and petticoats’; the circus
performer Oceana, ‘a female acrobat turning double somersaults without a stitch on is a
splendid sight for a tired old rake...’; Countess Letischeff, who ‘began to frequent all the
race-meetings round Paris’; and Glady and Marie Magnier, who both began life like Henri
Murger’s Mimi by making artificial flowers.
Degas’ most direct and explicit depictions of prostitution date from the late 1870s and
constitute a series of monotype prints of brothels, which are exceptional in his oeuvre in a
number of ways. By the time Degas came to produce these images, the Parisian brothel was
already in decline and represented a somewhat old-fashioned way for the middle-class
gentleman to take his pleasure.

The Pretty Women of Paris lists ninety-nine brothels within central Paris and a further seven
in the suburbs. The 183 women described individually in the book all worked independently
of brothels, however. Fanny Robert, for example, started her career in a brothel in Marseilles,
but was ‘rescued and brought to Paris by a rich lecher’. ‘The women loll around on the
plushly-upholstered furniture in relaxed open-legged postures, comfortable in their nudity or
semi-nudity and in their proximity to one another.’ The life of a registered prostitute in a licensed
brothel must have been a tough one.
Apart from the drudgery of the work, the women were subject to regular medical inspections
and other petty and humiliating restrictions. Yet – as described in the fiction of the period and
‘realist’ cabaret songs – life in a brothel was not without its compensations and attractions. The
song En Maison, sung by Damia, dubbed la Tragédienne de la chanson, tells of a young girl
who is rescued from a brothel by marriage to a middle-class man, but who comes to miss the
freedoms and the little habits of her life in the whorehouse. Degas’ prostitutes do not look
oppressed or unhappy. These brothel scenes are the most exuberant images he produced and
have an earthy humour and a joie-de-vivre not found elsewhere in his work. By contrast, it is
the black-clad women of Degas’ portraits with their rigid body language who seem repressed
and oppressed.
The good-humoured and warm-hearted behaviour of the women in the brothel prints
anticipates the mood of Guy de Maupassant’s famous short story The House of Madame Tellier,
published in 1881, in which the prostitutes lavish their warmth and affection on a young girl
taking her first communion. ‘All the women were eager to fondle her, seeking an outlet for those
affectionate demonstrations, that habit of caressing induced by their profession, which had
impelled them to kiss the ducks in the railway carriage.’
Among the most delightful of the prints is The Name Day of the Madame, which Degas later
reworked in pastel. A portly madame, dressed in respectable black and looking horribly like a

The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage,
c. 1874.
Pastel over brush and ink drawing on
cream paper, mounted on canvas,
54.3 x 73 cm.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York.

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caricature of the Widow of Windsor (Queen Victoria), is surrounded by girls wearing only
shoes and lavender stockings who offer her bouquets of flowers.
Once again we are reminded of La Maison Tellier, in which the women of the house
‘threw their arms round Madame Tellier and hugged her, as if she was an indulgent mother
overflowing with kindness and good will’. The stocky women depicted in these monotype
prints belong to a different physical type – almost, it would seem, to a different species – from
the statuesque laundresses, the more slender dancers and the tightly-corseted middle-class
ladies. This sturdily thickset type was clearly heavily in demand by 19th-century clients of
prostitutes. The adjective ‘stout’ is used with great approbation throughout The Pretty Women

of Paris.
Many of the women are described in terms strongly reminiscent of Degas’ images. Marie
Kolb is ‘a pleasant, little ball of fat’, and Blanche Querette ‘a most lascivious dumpling, and
every bit of her fleshy frame is deserving of worship’. Berthe Laetitia is ‘short, and her well-rounded
form is developed to the utmost, all her bones being covered with firm layers of elastic flesh,
and her breasts and buttocks being sights to behold’. Marie Martin is ‘a fine, dark, Spanish-looking,
matronly woman, with semi-globes like a Dutch sailor’s wench, and a pair of hips and a
monumental backside that would make a Turk go off like a bottle of ginger-beer on a hot day’.
Berthe Mallet is ‘the very woman for a man who likes to wallow in a mass of white flesh...’
Several of these prints, as well as many of the later pastel and oil Toilettes, show Degas’
fascination with large and fleshy buttocks. Here, too, he shared tastes with the compilers of The

Pretty Women of Paris, who were enthusiastic about the ‘enormous, fascinating buttocks’ of
Ernestine Desclauzes.
As for Zulmar Bouffar, the brilliant operetta star who created the role of the pretty glove-maker
Gabrielle in Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne, they tell us that ‘her best parts are her posterior
beauties: even the Hottentot Venus cannot boast such a well-formed pair of sculptured
marble buttocks’.
The residents of Degas’ brothels differ from the bland, idealised nudes exhibited at the Paris
Salons not only in their physical proportions and facial types, but also in their frank display of
abundant pubic hair. Nowhere is the sexual schizophrenia of the 19th century more apparent
than in the contrast between the hairless perfection of 19th-century academic nudes and the
relish with which the pubic hair of the women in The Pretty Women of Paris is itemised in the
most minute and precise detail.
So we learn that Bacri ‘can boast the best bush that ever grew below a moll’s navel’; that
the mons veneris of Laure Decroze ‘is protected by a splendid, soft, curly chestnut bush’; ‘The
neat body and flowing locks of golden hue’ of Emilie Kessler ‘will be sure to excite desire in
The Dance Class, c. 1873.
Oil on canvas, 47.6 x 62.2 cm.
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington,
D.C.

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the male, especially when he makes the discovery that her tangled bush is as black as night,
affording a rare and pleasing contrast.’ The brothel prints display a caricature and gently
satirical element that is virtually unique in Degas’ work. This is most apparent in Degas’ mockery

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of the bashful bowler- or top-hat wearing clients, dressed as always in the black uniform of the
‘undertaker’s mutes’.
In The Serious Client, for example, a curvaceous prostitute (whose body is modelled almost
entirely in Degas’ fingerprints) reaches out to encourage the timid bowler-wearing client. In
several of these images, the notorious acerbity and terseness of Degas’ conversational wit finds
a nice visual equivalent in the oblique and abbreviated way that he refers to the presence or
approach of the male client.

In the Salon shows a black-suited client with a top hat and stiffly-starched shirt collar
entering a room filled with prostitutes disporting themselves in the most carelessly abandoned
poses. In Repose and The Customer, we see no more than the client’s nose and a narrow strip
of the black fabric of his trousers. One of the most voluptuous of the brothel monotype prints,

Two Women (Scene in a Brothel), combines two potent male fantasies: lesbianism and
interracial sex.
If we are to believe the authors of The Pretty Women of Paris, lesbianism, or ‘tribadism’ as
they so quaintly put it, was common practice amongst Parisian prostitutes, although its extent
may well have become exaggerated in their overheated imaginations. These lesbian
encounters are described in the book with that curious mixture of moral disapproval and
salivating prurience that still characterises attitudes to sex in much of the British popular press.
So we read of the ‘disgusting caresses’ common to French prostitutes and the ‘Sapphic ties,
of which Parisian unfortunates are generally so fond’, and of Janvier, ‘an insatiable devotee of
lesbian love’, who ‘pursues her prey in the corridors of the Opera like a man’, of Nina Melcy,
mistress of a British Member of Parliament, who ‘adores her own sex, but only when there is
an important debate in the House’, and of Juliette Grandville who is ‘often Sappho by day and
Messalina by night, rushing eagerly to the arms of her masculine adorer with the glorious traces
of some girlish victim’s excitement on her feverish ruby lips.’ To see lesbian activity was clearly
exciting to many men in 19th-century Paris.
We are told of Thérèse Bréval, that ‘a favourite after-supper diversion is the spectacle of
Thérèse making love to one of her own sex’. Still closer to Degas’ print is the description of
the love-making of Laure Heymann with the black Countess Mimi Pegère: ‘It is a glorious sight
to see the fair Laure locked in the serpentine embrace of the lecherous little Sappho, who is
as black as coal, being a native of Haiti.’ In its listing of the licensed brothels of Paris, The

Pretty Women of Paris describes the brothel at 12 rue de Charbanais as ‘The finest bagnio
in the world. Each room is decorated in a different style, regardless of expense ... A negress
is kept on the establishment. This is a favourite resort of the upper ten, and many ladies, both
in society and out of it, come here alone, or with their lovers, for lesbian diversions.’ The
monotype prints of brothels are among the most private and personal of Degas’ works. It was
rare for him to treat the theme of prostitution as directly and openly in his larger-scale and more
public works.

The Dance Class (detail), c. 1873.
Oil on canvas, 47.6 x 62.2 cm.
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington,
D.C.

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An exception, though, was Women on a Café Terrace, Evening (p. 69), which Degas
showed at the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877. Like The Name Day of the Madame, it
is executed in pastel on top of a monotype print, but on a considerably larger scale. It shows
gaudily-plumed and fashionably-dressed prostitutes going about their business of attracting
passers-by on a busy gas-lit boulevard.
These women could easily be the sisters de Lamothe described in The Pretty Women of

Paris as looking ‘extremely attractive’ by gaslight and as ‘assiduous frequenters of the
fashionable cafés of the Boulevard each night’. At the approach of winter they ‘pack up
their bidets for Nice, where they astound all beholders with their ultra-fashionable clothing
and commanding appearance’. The top-hat wearing, dark-suited gentleman disappearing
hurriedly to the right is evidently a potential customer. The woman to the left, rising from her
seat, but shown bisected by a column, may be responding to his furtive invitation. Most
striking of all is the prostitute in the centre, who raises her thumb to her teeth in an insolent
and provocative gesture that has been much commented upon and variously interpreted.
We know from Guy de Maupassant’s short story Playing With Fire – about a respectable
woman who catches the attention of a passing male from her balcony, with disastrous
consequences – that an almost imperceptible gesture in the street was all that was needed
to strike a sexual bargain.
From the brothel to the opera house was not such a great leap, if we are to believe the
authors of The Pretty Women of Paris. ‘All the women at the National Academy of Music are
venal whores, and to outline their biographies would necessitate a volume devoted to that
building alone, which is nothing more than a gigantic bawdy-house. From the apprentice
ballet-girl, just out of her teens, down to the high-salaried principal songstress, all are to be
had for the asking – the payment varying from a supper and a new pair of boots, to hundreds
of pounds.’
With a view softened somewhat by nostalgia, the Vieil abonné also evokes the sexuallycharged atmosphere of the old opera house in the rue Le Peletier. ‘Then, pushing through the
lobby door which led onto the stairs of the wings, spreading up these staircases – trotting,
chirping, humming, laughing, opening love-letters, breathing in bouquets of flowers, nibbling
sweets or apples – [went] the entire flight of these charming creatures, the loves and the
pleasure of Paris at that time, who were the light, the animation, the life, the joy of the poor old
building....’
In the last thirty years of the 19th century when Degas painted and drew his images of
dancers, ballet was going through an artistic trough and was far from the respected and
elevated art form it had been since the time of Diaghilev. After visiting Degas in his studio in
The Absinthe Drinker or Glass of
Absinthe, 1875-1876.
Oil on canvas, 92 x 68.5 cm.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

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1874, the writer Edmond de Goncourt noted in his diary that Degas was able to demonstrate
various balletic positions. The sight of the conservative and already rather middle-aged Degas
performing pirouettes in his studio must have been a strange one.

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However, it seems likely that it was not so much the techniques of dancing that
fascinated Degas as the louche atmosphere backstage. Degas rarely depicted an actual
performance, and when he did, the illusion is always compromised by some intrusive
element of banal reality, such as the top of a musical instrument that rises up from the
orchestra pit or a glimpse of the dark trousers of the star dancer’s ‘protector’ standing in the
wings. Although the atmosphere of the backstage traffic in flesh is all-pervasive, it is once
again only in the more private medium of the monotype print that Degas gives it more
explicit expression. In the late 1870s, around the time that Degas produced his brothel
prints, he used the same medium for a series of sharp and witty illustrations to the stories
written by Ludovic Halévy about the Cardinal family: two young dancers at the Opera,
Pauline and Virginie, and their parents M. and Mme Cardinal, who nurture their daughters’
dancing and amorous careers.
Halévy, who, today, is chiefly remembered as co-librettist (with Henri Meilhac) of
Offenbach’s wittiest operettas, and of Bizet’s Carmen, which first introduced to the operatic
stage the kind of working-class girls that fascinated Degas, achieved an enormous popular
success in France between 1870 and 1880 with his stories about the Cardinal family. In Ces

Demoiselles de l’Opéra, the Vieil abonné acknowledges the truthfulness of Halévy’s portrayal
of the unscrupulous mothers’ jealously guarding their daughters’ virginities only to auction them
off in due course to the highest bidder.
As well as the ‘high’ art forms of opera and ballet (however debased), Degas greatly
enjoyed the popular art form of the Café Concert, which reached its peak in the 1870s. In
works towards the end of that decade such as At the “Café des Ambassadeurs” and The Song

of the Dog (p. 58) (both executed in pastel on top of a monotype print), Degas vividly captures
the animated gas-lit atmosphere of the Café Concerts, with the gaudily dressed prostitutes
weaving their way through the crowds in search of customers.
According to The Pretty Women of Paris, not only did prostitutes find the floors of the Café
Concerts rich hunting-grounds, but many took to the stage in order to increase their connections
and display their charms. Perrine, for example, ‘graces the music-hall stage with her presence,
but only for the purposes of prostitution, for she has but a piping, shrill little voice.’ The Song of

the Dog shows the most famous café concert star of the time, Thérésa.
Degas enthused about her. ‘She opens her mouth and out comes the largest and yet the most
delicate, the most wittily tender voice there is.’ Earning a reputed 30,000 francs a year and
the owner of a magnificent house at Asnières, Thérésa had no financial need for prostitution
but, in the words of The Pretty Women of Paris, ‘Thérésa is occasionally sought after by rich
strangers, who spend a few hours with her out of curiosity’. We are also informed that ‘the curse
of her life has been her voracious appetite for active tribadism’ and that ‘if the rakes who seek
the enjoyment of her body bring a fresh-looking girl with them as a sacrifice to the insatiable
Sappho, they will not be asked for a fee...’.

Women Combing their Hair, 1875-1876.
Oil on paper, mounted on canvas,
32.4 x 46 cm.
The Phillips Collection, Washington,
D.C.

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In the 1880s, Degas began the splendid series of Toilettes – women washing and
drying themselves and combing their hair – which constitutes one of his greatest
achievements. These Toilettes mark a significant break with the Post-Renaissance tradition
of depicting the female nude as a glorified pin-up self-consciously displaying her charms for
the benefit of the male viewer.
As Degas explained to the Irish writer George Moore, ‘Until now the nude has always
been represented in poses which presuppose an audience, but these women of mine are
honest, simple folk, involved solely and entirely in what they are doing. Here is an
individual person; she is washing her feet. It is as if you were looking through a keyhole.’
In none of these Toilettes does Degas individualise the facial features of his models. Faces
are either hidden or blurred and indiscernible. Degas’ subject is ‘woman’ rather than
particular women. He observes her behaviour with the pseudo-objectivity of a scientist
studying a primitive tribe or another species. Such an attitude seems disconcerting in
today’s moral and political climate. Degas himself remarked ‘I have perhaps too often
perceived woman as an animal’.
Another reason for Degas’ avoidance of his models’ faces may have been his disgust
for the slick and salacious female nudes on show at the Paris Salons. The obscenity of those
pictures lay not so much in the nudity as in the coyly enticing facial expressions. There were
those who regarded Degas’ Toilettes as an attack on womanhood and a denial of
sensuality. Even Joris Karl Huysmans, who greatly admired Degas’ work, took this view,
claiming that Degas had ‘in the face of his own century flung the grossest insult by
overthrowing woman, the idol who has always been so gently treated, whom he degrades
by showing her naked in the bathtub and in the humiliating dispositions of her private toilet’.
For Huysmans, Degas gloried in ‘his disdain for the flesh as no artist has ventured to do
since the Middle Ages ...’.
Far from disdaining flesh, many of these Toilettes express a powerful if sublimated
eroticism. Both colour and line become increasingly charged with sensuality as the series
progresses. The rituals of washing can be erotically charged, as we see from The Pretty

Women of Paris, in which the personal hygiene of the women is described in enthusiastic
detail. Clara Dermigny would offer her customers erotic books to read ‘while she is getting
ready for them by performing the preliminary ablutions’, and Elina Denizane was
nicknamed Fleur-de-Bidet ‘because she is always astride that useful article of furniture,
which plays such an important part in the toilette of a Frenchwoman’. It is no coincidence
that the theme of the Toilette was first touched upon in the series of monotype prints devoted
to the brothel in the late 1870s. In Admiration, the voyeurism is made comically explicit by
Dancers Backstage, 1876/1883.
Oil on canvas, 24.2 x 18.8 cm.
National Gallery of Art, Washington,
D.C.

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the appearance of a portly middle-aged man who seems to crawl up from underneath the
bathtub. In another print from the series, a dark-suited gentleman quietly watches a nude
woman combing her hair. There is an oblique hint of ‘preliminary ablutions’ in works such

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as The Morning Bath (p. 119) in the Institute of Art in Chicago, or The Bath (p. 158) in the
Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, in which a bed is placed prominently in the
foreground. In both cases the viewer would seem to be watching from the bed itself,
although the ablutions could perhaps be more accurately described as post-coital rather
than preliminary, for the beds are already rumpled.
Amongst the most voluptuous of Degas’ nudes are those combing their hair. Degas was
fascinated by women’s hair. There are stories of him happily combing the hair of his models
for hours on end. In one of the odder episodes of his career, he alarmed the family of his
friend Ludovic Halévy by writing a formal letter to request permission to see Geneviève Halévy
(widow of the composer Georges Bizet) with her hair down. Such hair fetishism was common
in many late 19th-century artists and writers. The novelist Elizabeth Gaskell remarked on Dante
Gabriel Rossetti’s fascination with women’s hair, and described how when a woman with
beautiful hair entered the room he was ‘like the cat turned into a lady, who jumped out of bed
and ran after a mouse’. Among the many other artists of the period who had some sort of
fixation on women’s hair were Münch, Mucha, and Toorop. The literature of the late 19th
century also abounds in erotic images of women’s hair. Pierre Louÿs’ poem Hair (which
inspired an exquisite song by Claude Debussy) expresses the claustrophobic sensuality of
being enveloped in a woman’s hair. Most famous of all is the scene in Maurice Maeterlinck’s
play Pelléas et Mélisande in which Mélisande leans out of her bedroom and allows her
abundant hair to fall over Pelléas standing beneath.
If Degas’ art is permeated from beginning to end with overtones of prostitution, it remains
nevertheless quite untainted by any element of sleaziness. In his famous series of essays inspired
by the Salon of 1846, Baudelaire speculated on the often depressing and disappointing
representations of erotic subjects and why this was the case. The defect of most, he thought, was
‘a lack of sincerity and a naïvete’. But he believed it was possible to make great art out of such
subject matter. ‘All things are sanctified by genius, and if these themes were treated with the
necessary care and reflection, they would in no way be soiled by that revolting obscenity which
is bravado rather than truth.’ It is precisely his ‘naïve’ truthfulness and the element of reflection that
enable Degas to transmute base metal into purest gold. As Renoir remarked to the dealer Vollard
apropos the monotype print of The Name Day of the Madame (p. xx), ‘At first sight such a subject
may often seem pornographic. Only someone like Degas could endow The Name Day of the

Madame with an air of joyousness and with the grandeur of an Egyptian bas-relief.’

The Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer’s
Opera “Robert Le Diable“, 1876.
Oil on canvas, 76.6 x 81.3 cm.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Laundress Carrying Linen in Town,
1876-1878.
Oil on canvas, 46 x 61 cm.
Paul J. Sachs Collection, New York.

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LETTERS BY DEGAS

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To Frølichi
Degas Brothers, New Orleans
27 Nov. 1872
It is only today, November 2nd, that I receive your affectionate letter, my dear Frølich. These most accurate
Americans had read Norwick Connecticut where in your handwriting New Orleans was written quite clearly.
And so through their fault this good paper has travelled around a fortnight too long.
The ocean! How vast it is and how far I am from you. The Scotia in which I travelled is an English boat swift
and sure. It brought us (I was with my brother René) in 10 days. The Empire City even takes 12 from Liverpool
to New York. What a sad crossing. I did not know any English, I hardly know any more, and on English territory,
even at sea, there is a coldness and a conventional distrust which you have perhaps already felt.
New York, great town and great port. The townsfolk know the great water. They even say that going to
Europe is going to the other side of the water. New people. In America there is far more disregard of the
English race than I had supposed.
Four days by train brought us here at last. Borrow an atlas from your dear little daughter and take a look at
the distance. Well (I have certainly not the strength of Thor), I was fatter than on my departure. Air – there is
nothing but air. How many new places I have seen, what plans that put into my head, my dear Frølich! Already
I am giving them up, I want nothing but my own little corner where I shall dig assiduously. Art does not expand,
it repeats itself. And, if you want comparisons at all costs, I may tell you that in order to produce good fruit
one must line up on an espalier. One remains thus all ones life, arms extended, mouth open, so as to assimilate
what is happening, what is around one and alive.
Have you read the Confessions by J. Jacques Rousseau? I am sure you have. Then do you recall his manner of
describing, his wealth of humour, after he has retired to the île du Lac de St Pierre in Switzerland (it is towards
the end) and that he is telling how he used to go out at daybreak, that whichever way he went, without noticing
it, he examined everything, that he started on work that would take 10 years to finish and left it without regret
at the end of 10 minutes? Well that is my case, exactly. Everything attracts me here. I look at everything, I shall
even describe everything to you accurately when I get back. I like nothing better than the negresses of all
shades, holding in their arms little white babies, so white, against white houses with columns of fluted wood
and in gardens of orange trees and the ladies in muslin against the fronts of their little houses and the
steamboats with two chimneys as tall as factory chimneys and the fruit vendors with their shops full to bursting,
and the contrast between the lively hum and bustle of the offices with this immense black animal force, etc.
etc. And the pretty women of pure blood and the pretty 25 year olds and the well set up negresses!
In this way I am accumulating plans which would take ten lifetimes to carry out. In six weeks time I shall
drop them without regret in order to regain and never more to leave my home.
My dear friend, thank you a hundred times for your letters and for your friendship. That gives such pleasure
when one is so far away.
My eyes are much better. I work little, to be sure, but at difficult things. The family portraits, they have to
be done more or less to suit the family taste, by impossible lighting, very much disturbed, with models full of
affection but a little sans-gêne and taking you far less seriously because you are their nephew or their cousin.

Woman Ironing, 1876-1887. Oil on canvas, 81.3 x 66 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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I have just messed up a large pastel and am somewhat mortified. If I have time I intend to bring back some
crude little thing of my own but for myself, for my room. It is not good to do Parisian art and Louisiana art
indiscriminately, it is liable to turn into the Monde Illustré. And then nothing but a really long stay can reveal the
customs of a people, that is to say their charm. Instantaneousness is photography, nothing more.
Have you seen the Mr Schumaker whom you sent to me? He thought I should have been able to help him
more easily. He wanted to be rubbed down by a French hand, like at the Turkish baths, immediately, after
having sweated a little. I told him that it took time to sweat out our vices (well done?).
I shall probably be back in January. I shall travel via Havanna. But you, you will soon be leaving us you say?
I do hope it is for your old mother’s sake, in which case it is a duty. However we shall see a lot of each other
until the spring. Your little daughter will play for me – I need music so much. There is no opera here this winter.
Yesterday evening I went to a rather monotonous concert, the first of the year. A Madame Urto played the
violin with some talent but rather monotonously accompanied and there is not the same intimacy at a concert,
here especially where the applause is even more stupid than elsewhere.
Clotilde must have been delighted to spin you a yarn about the master’s journey. I am sure she did not hide her
satisfaction. She is a real servant out of a play, but she has her points. I threatened not to take her back on my return
and I am afraid to do so. She is too young for a bachelor and her self-assurance is really of too strong a quality. You
must still have your Swedish woman, she seems to be so devoted to you that you will not be able to part with her.
You only knew Achille, I believe, and only met him for a moment. My other brother, René, the last of the
three boys, was my travelling companion, even my master. I knew neither English nor the art of travelling in
America; therefore I obeyed him blindly. What stupidities I should have committed without him! He is married
and his wife, our cousin, is blind, poor thing, almost without hope. She has borne him two children, she is going
to give him a third whose Godfather I shall be, and as the widow of a young American killed in the war of
Secession she already had a little girl of her own who is 9 years old. Achille and René are partners; I am writing
to you on their office note-paper. They are earning very nicely and are really in an exceptionally good position
for their age. They are much liked and respected here and I am quite proud of them.
Politics! I am trying to follow those of my native France in the Louisianian papers. They talk of little but
the super tax on houses, and they give Mr Thiers experts’ advice on republicanism.
Goodbye, your proverbs are nearly as abundant as those of Sancho; given his gaiety you would increase
them threefold. How healthy a thing is laughter, I laughed at them a lot.
It is true, my dear Frølich, one feels young in spirit. That is what David said in Brussels on the eve of his death.
But enthusiasm, good humour, and vision, one is bound to lose a little of these. You are in a better way than I am.
You can write to me when you get this; your answer will still find me at Louisiana. A kiss for your little one.
I clasp your hand and thank you for your friendship.
Degas
My regards to Manet and his family.
I have reread my letter. It is very cold compared to yours. Do not be angry with me.

The Star, 1878. Pastel, 60 x 44 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

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To Henri Rouart
New Orleans
5 Dec. 1872
You will receive this, my dear Rouart, on New Years Day. You will then wish Mme Rouart a happy New
Year and embrace your children for me, including the newborn. Out of this you will also take a bit for yourself.
I shall certainly be back in January. To vary my journey I intend going back via Havanna, the French
transatlantic lines dock there. I am eager to see you again at my house, to work in contact with you. One does
nothing here, it lies in the climate, nothing but cotton, one lives for cotton and from cotton. The light is so
strong that I have not yet been able to do anything on the river. My eyes are so greatly in need of care that I
scarcely take any risk with them at all. A few family portraits will be the sum total of my efforts, I was unable
to avoid that and assuredly would not wish to complain if it were less difficult, if the settings were less insipid
and the models less restless. Oh well, it will be a journey I have done and very little else. Manet would see lovely
things here, even more than I do. He would not make any more of them. One loves and gives art only to the
things to which one is accustomed. New things capture your fancy and bore you by turns. The beautiful, refined
Indian women behind their half opened green shutters, and the old women with their big bandanna kerchiefs
going to the market can be seen in a different light to Biard. But then what? The orange gardens and the painted
houses attract attention, too, and the children all dressed in white and all white against black arms, they are also
beautiful. But wait! Do you remember in the Confessions, towards the end, Rousseau on the île de St Pierre on
the Lac de Brienne, at last free to dream in peace, observing impartially, beginning work that would take 10
years to finish and abandoning it after 10 minutes without regret? That is exactly how I feel. I see many things
here, I admire them. I make a mental note of their appropriation and expression and I shall leave it all without
regret. Life is too short and the strength one has only just suffices. Well then, long live fine laundering in France.
I have had a slight attack of dysentery for the last two, which is making me tired. The bismuth nitrate will
stop that. We also have hot temperatures in December, more suited to June, 24 or 25 degrees Celsius at least,
not forgetting a sirocco wind that could kill you. This weather would be unbearable in summer, and exhausting
during other seasons. You would have to be from the country, or work for the eternal cotton industry, for it
not to affect you.
Fifteen days ago, ML Bujac had dinner with us. Naturally we spoke about you, and all the good things that
were said did not surprise anybody. He seems very sad and worried, poor man! And he has the right to be. One
day I will go to the ice factory with him.
So, you are hardly a better writer than me. Why haven’t you written me even two words? In the morning,
when the mail arrives, there are rarely any letters for me, and I am still not used to it.
You see my friend, I am at home living the good life like no other, except maybe Bouguereau, whose energy
and technique I cannot match. I am craving some order. I am not even considering a woman as an enemy of
this new way of being. Some children, my own and from me, would this be too much? No. I am dreaming of
something done well, a well-ordered whole (Poussin style) and Corot’s great age. It is the right moment. Same
way of living, but less happy, less honorable, and full of all regrets.

Two Laundresses, 1876-1878. Oil on canvas, 46 x 61 cm. Paul J. Sachs Collection, New York.

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Here René is among family, he is only a little homesick. His wife is blind but she has overcome this
unhappiness. They are expecting a third child, to whom I will be the godfather and who will not bear my foolish
behaviour. But this is a secret, don’t tell anybody; nobody is being told. I have not even written to my sister,
that’s the order. Father wants the world to end as if we were not there to restore order.
The lack of opera is a real suffering. We would have rented her a ground-floor box, where she would never
have missed a performance, apart from during the delivery, of course. Instead, we have a comedy, drama,
vaudeville troup, etc, where there are a lot of very good talents from Montmartre.
Here nearly every woman is pretty, and many have a touch of ugliness which adds to their charm. But I fear
their minds are as weak as mine, two of us would make for a poorly managed household. Alas, I just said
something which would bring me nothing but an awful reputation. Swear, Rouart, on your word, to never
repeat it in case it could be reported here, to people from here or people who know people from here, that I
told you women from New-Orleans are weak-minded. This is serious – let us not jest. My death would not
counter such an affront. Louisiana must be respected by all her children; I too am nearly one of them. After
that, if I were to tell you that they must be good, the insult would be too much, and in repeating that, you would
have brought me to my executioners. I am joking; creole women have something captivating. I was telling you
about Rousseau earlier, I am reading him again tonight and like to quote him.
Julie d’Étange was loved because she seemed ready to be loved (read again a letter from Claire to her friend);
there is an 18th century tenderness in their appearance. In these families, many arrived here young, and you can
still smell the perfume.
Farewell, I wanted to fill four pages, notice that I wanted to please you. If I have not succeeded, punish me
in the same way. And I am in De Gas Brothers office, where we write a lot. De Gas Brothers are well-respected
here and I am quite honoured to see that. They will succeed.
Finally, again I wish a happy New Year to Mrs Rouart, kiss again your children and shake your hand.
Yours faithfully,
Degas
Greetings to Levert, your friends, Martin, Pissarro with who I will speak a lot from here, etc. I was
forgetting your brother and Mignon.
Here lives a man called Lamon who invented a said-to be clever device, which makes carts work with steam
in the upper town. We were talking a lot about tramways in Paris, I will bring you back a description of this tool.

Café-Concert at Les Ambassadeurs, 1876-1877. Pastel, 37 x 27 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon.

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To Henri Rouart
Paris
8 Aug. 1873
You could not do better, my dear friend, than to sing of the countryside. If your unusual correspondent
has not quite burnt down the Opera he has at least rented two rooms ... at Croissy. He is going to go there once
he has secured his rest and he will do his nature cure just like any strolling player. He is considering walking to
Rouen, along the banks of the Seine, of boarding pinnaces or a train if it happens to pass. So I rather fancy
myself a stick in one hand but no parasol, studying values, the curves in the road, on little hills, and above all
in the evenings, the hour for soup and of great sleepiness in sheets that are comparatively white. A little whiff
of the kitchen and the Roche-Guyon, that is my device. It is nature. I am expecting less delirious happiness from
it than you, but just a little good for my eyes and a little relaxation for the rest of me.
I have never done with the finishing off of my pictures and pastels etc. How long it is and how my last
good years are passing in mediocrity! I often weep over my poor life. Yesterday I went to the funeral of Tillot’s
father. Lippmann told me the other day that you would soon be back and I had some small hope of seeing you
there. I am writing to you in order to reduce the force of your reproaches. Perhaps the letter will come back
from Portrieux to Paris but it will reach you and perhaps appease you. The heart is like many an instrument, it
must be rubbed up and used a lot so that it keeps bright and well. For my own, it is rather you who rub it than
its owner.

The Song of the Dog, 1876-1877. Gouache and pastel on monotype, 57.5 x 45 cm. Private collection.

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To Faureii
Turin
Saturday, Dec. 1873
Dear Mr Faure,
This is where an ill wind has cast me at Turin. My father was en route for Naples, he fell ill here and left us
without any news of himself and when we found him at last it was I who had to leave immediately to look after
him and I find myself tied for some time to come, far from my painting and my life, in the heart of Piemont.
I was eager to finish your picture and to do your bagatelle. Stevens was waiting for his two pictures. I wrote
to him yesterday, I am writing to you today to ask forgiveness from both of you.
Well, here we both are far removed from our own theatres. Even if mine did not burn down it is just as if
it had. I act no more.
The papers that I read here speak at great length on the subject of the Opera. There must be some powerful
intrigues beneath the surface.
I am not forgetting that I must ask you to give my condolences to Mme Faure. There are some for you too.
But all this is very late.
Please accept, dear Mr Faure, my best regards. And even had these last accidents not occured there would
still be apologies.
Edg. Degas
Greetings to Lecht.

Woman Combing her Hair in front of Mirror, c. 1877. Oil on canvas, 47.6 x 32.4 cm. Norton Simon Art Foundation, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena.

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To Bracquemondiii
Hotel de Turin, 77, rue Blanche
Tuesday, 1874
A line from Burtyiv, my dear Bracquemond, tells me that yesterday he made a new adherent of you and that
you want to arrange a rendezvous for a talk. To begin with, we open on the fifteenth. We must hurry, then. We
shall have to rearrange our rendezvous for the 6th or 7th then, or perhaps a little later, but soon enough that we
can make the catalogue for the opening day. There is space there (Boulevard des Capucines, Nadar’s old
workshop), and a unique situation, etc., etc., etc. Has Burty given you any details, or would you like a summary
of all the information? I will meet with you; you may change the date if it does not suit you. Thursday morning
at 11 o’clock, at our premises. Have a look at the place; we can talk after if there is still the need for it. You will
make a most prolific adherent. Be assured that you are doing us a great pleasure and service. (Manet, excited
about Fantin and terrified of himself, is still reluctant, but nothing seems decided yet.)
Greetings,
Degas

After the Bath, c. 1890. Pastel on paper. Neue Pinakothek, Munich.

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To Bracquemond
Tuesday, 2 o’clock, 13 May 1879
My Dear Friend,
Yes, certainly, the exhibition has closed. So why do you leave your things? Hurry up. There is also 439.50
francs to draw per person which is quite good. If you cannot find Portier, our manager, go to 54, rue Lepic
where he lives. Or else I shall draw it for you.
I spoke to Caillebotte about the journal, he is willing to guarantee it for us. Come and talk it over with me.
No time to lose!
This morning I went with Prunaire, the wood engraver, you must know him, to see a certain Geoffroy, a
famous phototyper, rue Campagne Premiere. A strange man, an inventor with bad eyes.
We must be quick and make the most of our gains boldly, boldly above the poor world.
Yesterday a big discussion with Vibert who begs to be told why he is considered stupid.
Congratulations to your wife above all for the two sides of her cartoon.
Yes, indeed, next year we must make a powerful effort. Do find time to spend a day with me. There are
a number of things to be fixed and arranged for our journal so that we can show our capitalists some
definite programme.
Sincerely yours,
Degas

Woman with Opera Glasses (detail), c. 1877. Oil on paper, 48 x 32 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.

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To Bracquemond
Undated. Probably end of 1879 or the beginning of 1880.
How I need to see you, Bracquemond, and how badly I let you down!
1st. Let me know if my friend Rossana could work in your Haviland house; he is a man of much talent,
landscapist and animal painter, very sensitive, should be able to do flowers delightfully, grasses, etc. I was
supposed to have written to you about him a long time ago.
2nd. We must discuss the journal. Pissarro and I together made various attempts of which one by Pissarro
is a success. At the moment, Mlle Cassatt is full of it. Impossible for me, with my living to earn, to devote
myself entirely to it as yet. So let us arrange to spend a whole day together, either here or at your house. Have
you a press at your place? Your wife is still preparing her exhibition, is she not?
See you soon,
Degas
I heard that you have the commission for Delacroix’s Boissy d’Anglas. It is what you so much wanted. Long
live the leading profession!

Swaying Dancer (Dancer in Green), 1877-1879. Pastel and gouache, 64 x 36 cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

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To Bracquemond
1880
My Dear Bracquemond,
It is opening on April 1st. The posters will be up tomorrow or Monday. They are in bright red letters on a
green background. There was a big fight with Caillebotte as to whether or not to put the names. I had to give
in and let him put them up. When on earth will they stop the headlines? Mlle Cassatt and Mme Morisot did
not insist on being on the posters. It was done the same way as last year and Mme Bracquemond’s name will
not appear – it is idiotic. All the good reasons and the good taste in the world can achieve nothing against the
inertia of the others and the obstinacy of Caillebotte.
In view of the frenzied advertisement made by de Nittis and Monet (in the Vie Moderne), our exhibition
promises to be quite inglorious. Next year, I promise you, I shall take steps to see that this does not continue.
I am miserable about it, humiliated.
Start bringing your things. There will probably be two panel screens, one in the centre of the room with
the four windows and the other in the entrance room. You will be able to arrange your entire stock of
engravings on them.
See you soon,
Degas
If you insist and Mme Bracquemond insists, too, her name can be put on the second thousand posters
during the exhibition. Answer.

Women on a Café Terrace (detail), 1877. Pastel, 54.5 x 71.5 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

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To Camille Pissarro
1880
My Dear Pissarro,
I compliment you on your enthusiasm; I hurried to Mademoiselle Cassatt with your parcel. She congratulates
you as I do in this matter.
Here are the proofs: The prevailing blackish or rather greyish shade comes from the zinc which is greasy in
itself and retains the printers black. The plate is not smooth enough. I feel sure that you have not the same
facilities at Pontoise as at the rue de la Huchette. In spite of that you must have something a bit more polished.
In any case, you can see what possibilities there are in the method. It is necessary for you to practise dusting
the particles in order, for instance, to obtain a sky of a uniform grey, smooth and fine. That is very difficult, if one
is to believe Maître Bracquemond. It is, perhaps, fairly easy if one wants only to do engravings after original art.
This is the method. Take a very smooth plate (it is essential, you understand). De-grease it thoroughly with
whitening. Previously you will have prepared a solution of resin in very concentrated alcohol. This liquid,
poured after the manner of photographers when they pour collodion onto their glass plates (take care, as they
do, to drain the plate well by inclining it) this liquid then evaporates and leaves the plate covered with a coating,
more or less thick, of small particles of resin. In allowing it to bite, you obtain a network of lines, deeper or
less deep, according as to whether you allowed it to bite more or less. To obtain equal hues this is necessary; to
get less regular effects you can obtain them with a stump or with your finger or any other pressure on the paper
which covers the soft background.
Your soft background seems to me to be a little too greasy. You have added a little too much grease or tallow.
What did you blacken your background with to get that bistre tone behind the drawing? It is very pretty.
Try something a little larger with a better plate.
With regard to the colour, I shall have your next lot printed with a coloured ink. I have also other ideas for
coloured plates.
So do also try something a little more finished. It would be delightful to see the outlines of the cabbages
very well defined. Remember that you must make your début with one or two very, very beautiful plates of your
own work.
I am also going to get down to it in a day or two.
Caillebotte, so I am told, is doing the refuges of the Boulevard Hanssmann seen from his window.
Could you find someone at Pontoise who could cut some things you traced on very light copper? That kind
of pattern could be applied on a line proof – touched up a little for effect – of etchings and then the exposed
parts printed with porous wood coated with watercolours. That would enable one to try some attractive
experiments with original prints and curious colours. Work a little on that if you can. I shall soon send you
some of my own attempts along these lines. It would be economical and new, and would, I think, be suitable
enough for a beginning.
No need to compliment you on the quality of the art of your vegetable gardens.
Only as soon as you feel a little more accustomed try on a larger scale with more finished things.
Be of good cheer,
Degas

The Dance Rehearsal (detail), c. 1877. Oil on canvas, 66 x 100 cm. The Burrell Collection, Glasgow.

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To Henri Rouart
Paris
Tuesday, 26 Oct.
Thank you for your pencilled letter, my dear Rouart. The sirocco, it appears, dries up the ink as it does oil
colours and the vitality of the painters. Ah! How I regret not having been able to go down there with you to
see these dear friends. And then, to tell you at once, it is comparatively rare, I am in the mood to love grand
nature a little. You would have had as companion a changed.
I am just off to the boulevard Voltaire to dine with your brother. Mud, mud, mud, umbrellas. In the evening
hours it is nevertheless very beautiful!

Dancer Posing for a Photograph, c. 1877-1878. Oil on canvas, 65 x 50 cm. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

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To Alexis Rouartv
1882
My dear friend, it was only yesterday that I had this little attempt with carbon crayon printed. You see what
a pretty grey it is. One should have emery pencils. Do give me an idea how to make them myself. I could not
talk about it with your brother on Friday. Thank you for the stone you gave me. It scratches copper in a most
delightful manner. Is it a conglomerate like Denis Poulot makes? I read Delanoue the Elder with the
magnifying glass.
On what could I use it as an etching point? No time to do some really serious experiments. Always articles
to fabricate. The last is a monochrome fan for Mr Beugniet. I think only of engraving and do none.
Greetings,
Degas

Dancer with a Bouquet, Curtseying, 1878. Pastel on paper mounted on canvas, 72 x 77.5 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

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To J.E. Blanche
1882
Dear Monsieur Blanche,
I shall enquire at the Opera if they have a seat free for the three days. I shall take Monday as I have always
done and you will make arrangements with a friend for the other two days, like you told me. The seat will be
in my name and I shall have the right to go behind the scenes. This is a first suggestion which I consider much
too agreeable for me and not enough so for you. Going behind the scenes attracts you and I am preventing it.
But perhaps you are the kind of man either to console yourself, or as an art critic to have permission in any
case, or simply as a spoilt child to demand it as a right.
Vaucorbeil is still ill and Ephrussi (Charles) on the best of terms with Darcel, the secretary of the Opera.
On the other hand, I do not know if it will be easy to find someone to replace me for Monday’s seat in
which case I shall be saddled with it until a new subscriber takes it off me. And then your letter makes me think
that you thought I had a subscription for all three days and was willing to give up two, more particularly one
day. No, I only have Mondays and that is sometimes too much.
And then I should like to keep the right side. Tell me if you have a friend all ready to take the third day.
This is all rather difficult to arrange.
With regard to the sending of the huge sum, we are still far removed from that.
Write to Ephrussi, he will dictate your, he will dictate our, conduct.
Sincerest regards,
Degas

Two Dancers on a Stage, c. 1874. Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 46 cm. Courtauld Institute Galleries, London.

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To Bartholomé
Paris
5 Aug. 1882
I have surprised you my dear friend. It is true I am down and up again very quickly. And so I arrived
Monday evening, I found your message and the next morning, Tuesday, rue Bayard, they told me that you had
already decamped the evening before. Eight days at Étretat, it was a long time for me. Halévy is good but
mournful, I can neither play piquet nor billiards nor do I know how to pay attention to people nor how to work
after nature nor simply how to be agreeable in society. I think I weighed a bit heavily on them and that they
had thought I was more resourceful.
When are you coming back? For I am alone here. Paris is charming and is not work the only possession one
can always have at will?
Monday morning sitting with Pagans, before his departure for Spain. Mme Camus is said to have wept for
spite and for passion for the guitar in front of a good general who teaches her.
J.E. Blanche sent me a big article in the Standard where I was flattered in a few courteous and pinched lines.
I should pinch them, too, were I not afraid of spoiling the abscess before it is ripe. He is said to have tried to
get hold of Gervex again, a new man decorated and more useful.

Woman Getting Out of the Bath, 1877. Pastel, 23 x 31 cm. Cabinet des Dessins, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

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To Bartholomé
Wednesday, Spring 1883
Change of air, that must do you good even in this filthy weather! That must cure you of not being warmed
all day by a stove, warmed also by painting. I really must force myself, now that the days are growing longer,
only to remain half the day, either morning or afternoon, in my studio, and to go for walks. Ambulare, here is
a new motto, postea laborare.
Manet is done for. That doctor Hureau de Villeneuve is said to have poisoned him with too much diseased
rye seed. Some papers, they say, have already taken care to announce his approaching end to him. His family
will, I hope, have read them before he did. He is not in the least aware of his dangerous condition and he has
a gangrenous foot.

Two Dancers Entering the Stage, 1877-1878. Pastel on monotype, 38.1 x 35 cm. Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge.

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To Henri Rouart
16 Oct. 1883
My dear friend, this letter will just reach you at Venice. So the separation that Mme Rouart wished for will be
less complete than necessary.
On Saturday we buried Alfred Niaudet. Do you remember the guitar soiree at the house, nearly a year and
a half ago? I was counting up the friends present, we were 27. Now four have gone. The Mlles Cassatt were to
have come, one of them is dead. That would have made it five. Let us try and stick to this earth however
republican it may be.
You love nature as much as humidity. In spite of that do me the favour of leaving your two friends for a
moment to go, in dryness, to the palais Labia to see, partly for yourself and partly for me, the frescoes of
Tiepolo. Forain, yes Forain, gave me a glimpse of them on the table at the Café La Rochefoucauld, which he
ended by comparing them to a poster by Chéret. It is his way of admiring them. Perhaps it is no worse than
any other.
Had I accompanied you, I should have given a prelude to the portrait of your daughter in the heart of
Venice where her hair and her complexion were once famous. But I remained here because there are such
things as rent.

Dancers in the Wings, 1880. Pastel and tempera on paper, 69.2 x 50.2 cm. Norton Simon Art Foundation, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena.

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To Ludovic Halévy
Nov. 1883
The little Chabol arrived both very surprised and very pleased at having been called to M. Meyers to renew
her engagement. The Mlles Salle and Sacré were called at the same time.She was offered a sum that she says
is very small. She was getting 2,200, they offered her 2,400. We must try and help her to get 2,600 or 2,800
for the first year. Moreover, Mr Meyer offers her 2,700 for the next year, that is to say for 1885; and for 1886,
3,000 francs. So it is an increase of 200 or 300 francs at most for which she is asking for this year and she
says that she deserves it for all sorts of reasons: she was a pupil at 16 years, she was moved up after each
examination etc.
So try to get her:
1st. 2,700 francs or 2,800 francs for 1884;
2nd. 3,000 francs for 1885;
3rd. 3,500 francs for 1886.
The contract she has to sign is for 3 years.
The petitioner is in a great hurry and quite simply wishes you to go to the Opera this evening. I am much
afraid that you will have to go to the Rois en Exil or even to Simon Boccanegra where I am presenting myself this
evening at no. 177 in the name of Mr Verdi.
In a word, do what you think best, write to Mr Vaucorbeil, for it would seem to be really urgent. Moreover,
you know how everything is done at the Opera.
Greetings,
Degas
The said demoiselle Chabot sends you her respects.

Singer with a Glove or Café Concert Singer, c. 1878. Pastel on canvas, 52.9 x 41.1 cm. Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge.

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To Madame Bartholomé (née de Fleury)
Monday, Undated
Dear Madame,
Be good enough to grant me yet another little leave of absence for Wednesday. Something surprising has
happened. A painter Henri Lerolle who, so I was told, was in the process of being decorated in the space left
empty between his Salon and the Exposition Triennale or Nationale and whom I knew to be quite well off, has
just invited me to dinner. The right he has is still recent, but fairly weighty. In agreement with his wife, who is
said to manage him, he has just, at a moment like this, bought a little picture of mine of horses, belonging to
Durand-Ruelvi. And he writes admiringly of it to me (style Saint-Simon), and wishes to entertain me with his
friends, and although most of the legs of the horses in his fine picture (mine) are rather badly placed, yet, in
my modesty, I should very much enjoy a little esteem at dinner. Just this once, dear Madame, permit me to
become intoxicated with the perfume of glory, from the other side of the water, behind the Invalides, Avenue
Duquesne. If nothing happens to intoxicate me, not even the wine, why should I not go and present myself to
you for a moment, about 10:30, with an air of success.
Your friend,
Degas

Study for Little 14-Year-Old Dancer, c. 1878-1881. Chalk and pastel, 46 x 57 cm. Private collection, London.

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To Bartholomé
16 Aug. 1884
So you are going to proceed by way of confiscation, my dear friend? What will you confiscate in the horrible
human heart? I do not know where my friends can sit down in it, there are no more chairs; there is the bed
which cannot be confiscated and where I really sleep too much, for this morning at 7 o’clock, after having left
it for a moment to go and open the window and set about writing to you before the postman left, I remained
there in order to enjoy the morning more deeply. Yes, I am getting ungrateful, and I am getting so in a state of
coma, which makes this illness irremediable. After having cut art in two, as you remind me, I shall cut my own
beautiful head in two, and Sabine will preserve it for the sake of its shape in a jar.
Is it the country, is it the weight of my fifty years that makes me as heavy and as disgusted as I am? They
think I am jolly because I smile stupidly, in a resigned way. I am reading Don Quixote. Ah! Happy man and what
a beautiful death.
Let your wife, being in such good health, not curse me too much and let her ask herself if I am really worth
the trouble. And let her keep her anger and her tenderness for a man who is young, confident, proud, simple,
bold, and soft, supple and hard, painter and writer, writer and father, and even more astonishing than he thinks,
writes or lets others write and says so: Long live J.F. Raflaelli. He is, I tell you, the man we need.
Your medallion should have angered me. And I cheered it as if it were of gold. Long live Sandoval too, the
man who lets houses, the man who pays his rent without any other way judging of your merit.
I am cracking coarse jests for you and I have not the taste for them. Ah! where are the times when I thought
myself strong. When I was full of logic, full of plans. I am sliding rapidly down the slope and rolling I know
not where, wrapped in many bad pastels, as if they were packing paper.
Goodbye, my sincere regards all the same to your excellent wife and to you.
Degas

Dancer (Studio), c. 1878. Pastel and charcoal on paper, 37 x 27 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon.

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To Henry Lerolle
21 Aug. 1884
If you reply, my dear Lerolle, you will most certainly tell me that I am a queer specimen. Why did I not
write to you before your departure and after having received the box of sugared almonds, really I hardly know.
If you were single, 50 years of age (for the last month), you would know similar moments when a door shuts
inside one and not only on one’s friends. One suppresses everything around one and, once all alone, one finally
kills oneself out of disgust. I have made too many plans, here I am blocked, impotent. And then I have lost
the thread of things. I thought there would always be enough time. Whatever I was doing, whatever I was
prevented from doing, in the midst of all my enemies and in spite of my infirmity of sight, I never despaired
of getting down to it some day.
I stored up all my plans in a cupboard and always carried the key on me. I have lost that key. In a word, I
am incapable of throwing off the state of coma into which I have fallen. I shall keep busy, as people say who
do nothing, and that is all.
I write you all this without real need to do so, it would have sufficed to ask your pardon very humbly for
my rudeness.
But I remember that Alexis Rouart told me that upon leaving Paris you were going near Vimoutiers. This
letter that I am addressing 20, Avenue Duquesne will follow you and this time (it is you who must answer me)
I am sure of a reply.
I must tell you that I, too, am near Vimoutiers with a friend of my childhood days, perhaps only a few
leagues from you. Write to me to Château de Ménil-Hubert, Gacé (Orne).
If you are where I think you are, I shall go and see you at once.
My kind regards to your wife.
Sincerely yours,
D.

Dancer in her Dressing Room, 1878-1879. Gouache and Pastel on Paper, 60 x 40 cm. Private collection.

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To Henri Rouart
Château de Ménil-Hubert, Gacé (Orne)
22 Aug. 1884
My dear friend, the other day Mme Rouart’s letter was brought to me in the cab which was taking me to
Normandy, your concierge will have confirmed this.
I should have been pleased to see you and had I known you were arriving at 5 o’clock on Friday the 9th I
should have gone straight away in the evening to the rue Lisbonne. I kept on postponing and postponing. My
aunt had a rather disgruntled, rather imperious, letter written to me. Upon receiving this, I announced that I
would be there at the said time.
And now the weather is magnificent weather for you (deep down, I am not really wicked), but I have no
real confidence in the aneroid barometer which says that it is to continue. One should believe in nothing but
rain in France. Here, we are in a large, hollow park with very high dense trees and water which rises everywhere
from under your feet. There are some pastures where it is like walking on sponges. Why do the animals that
feed and do their business in these damp pasturing grounds not get rheumatism and why do they not pass it
on to us who eat them?
I am trying a little to work. The first days I felt stifled and dazed by the amount of air. I am recovering, I
am trying to eat little. Well, however do you manage to arrive in a country, quite unprepared, and work the next
day at 6 o’clock in the morning, the same day if you travel at night? You love nature more than I do, you wil