Degas and the Nude at Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Most Erotic Impressionist Painter: Photos

Impressionist Edgar Degas is the most erotic painter of nudes. By Jimmy So.

Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Degas and the Nude

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Oct. 9, 2011, to Feb. 5, 2012

We know Edgar Degas as an Impressionist, and the possessor of a near-fanatical devotion to ballerinas. But the new show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is centered on his nudes. There are 165 pieces on view, 145 of them by Degas. This revelatory exhibition could alter the way we think of his body of work.
—Jimmy So

Courtesy of Musée d'Orsay and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Neck

Edgar Degas, 1886–95

Like a good Impressionist, Degas was determined to render reality as truthfully as possible—which meant that if he was painting a nude, he wanted to convey the eroticism of the figure. A late pastel called After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Neck, is typical: the room is still, hot, and filled with sex.

Courtesy of Musée d'Orsay and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Tub

Edgar Degas, 1886

Born in Paris in 1834 into a rich family, Degas was a conservative (in his anti-Semitic politics) and a realist (in his art), and he had no fondness at all for revolution. Although he shared sympathies with most of the Impressionists, he sneered at painting en plein air, or “in the open air.” He always worked in his studio, and often relied on photography, which gave him the opportunity to draw from unusual angles. With The Tub, the unorthodox viewpoint is from above. Lucian Freud, his worthy successor as a painter of flesh, thought this pastel didn’t really work: “You might slightly feel she was laying an egg.”

Courtesy of Musée d'Orsay and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Scene of War in the Middle Ages

Edgar Degas, 1863–65

Degas wanted to be the successor of great history painters, a line that ran from Poussin to David and Ingres. The first work he sent to and exhibited at the Salon, in 1865, was Scene of War in the Middle Ages. It was also his last history painting, and the figures on the left foreshadow many of the poses to be repeated in years to come, though his focus would later turn to depicting scenes of everyday modern life.

Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Death of Sardanapalus

Eugene Delacroix, 1844

Delacroix’s gigantic The Death of Sardanapalus was a heavy influence on Degas’s obsession with movement. Based on Lord Byron’s play, the painting was completed in 1827, though it wasn’t shown again in public until 1861 at the Galerie Martinet, which Degas almost certainly frequented. The painting invites the viewer to partake in the chaotic and violent moment.

Courtesy of Musée d'Orsay and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Nude Woman Lying on Her Back, Study for Scene of War in the Middle Ages

Edgar Degas, 1863–65

Degas’s true idol was the conservative Ingres, the supreme master of absolute precision, who told a young Edgar to “draw lines, young man, draw lines … then you will be a good artist.” Sure enough, after a period of intensely rigorous academic training, Degas became one of the greatest draughtsmen ever. Here you see him making a study of the corpse on the bottom left corner, caring as much for the horror of the scene as the beauty of it.

Courtesy of National Gallery of Canada and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Serious Client

Edgar Degas, 1876–77

Degas entered his prime in the 1870s, the period of his most famous works: his ballet paintings like The Dance Class (1873–76) and snapshot café scenes like L’Absinthe (1876). He largely abandoned the nude, but would make a voracious return in the late 1870s—and to brothels, no less. The dealer Ambroise Vollard would use these monotypes in his 1934 illustrated edition of the La Maison Tellier short stories of Guy de Maupassant. In The Serious Client, the hesitation of the man can be summed up best, if in a blatantly misogynistic way, by Maupassant himself: “Love, that bestial function of the beast, has become in [the hands of women] a terrible weapon of domination.”

Courtesy of Musée d'Orsay and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Nude Woman, Standing

Edgar Degas, about 1878

The tension between his conservatism and radicalism and the bridging of beauty and impropriety are typical in many of Degas’s nudes, like Nude Woman, Standing. The model’s weary stance is similar to the bend of the far left figure in Scenes of War more than a decade earlier. From here on, Degas would focus increasingly on the bodies of solitary women.

Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

La Toilette

Edgar Degas, 1884–86

The dominant motif in Degas’s nudes—the bath—rose out of brothel monotypes like Nude Woman Squatting, From Behind (1876–77), Woman at Her Toilette (about 1876), and The Bidet (probably 1876–77). But as obscene as these works were, Degas moved slowly from obscenity to more ambiguously themed bathers. His La Toilette is dreamy, which is just what it feels like to stare at the translucent flesh of this woman’s back.

Courtesy of Musée d'Orsay and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot

Edgar Degas, 1896–1911

Degas exhibited his sculptures only once during his life. Almost all of his wax models and plaster casts were found after his death. But to him, modeling was simply another way of “thinking,” most importantly about movement. If sculpture seemed to be anchored to a still moment, Degas sought to animate it, inspiring generations of modernists.

Courtesy of Musée d'Orsay (dépôt au Musée Rodin) and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Danaid

Auguste Rodin, 1889–90

Rodin, the father of modern sculpture, followed Degas’s lead by dissolving his statues with the effects of light and shadow, as Degas and the Impressionists had done in painting. In turn, his Danaid—which dramatizes exhaustion by representing the story of a woman condemned to the impossible task of emptying a well every night with a sieve—may have affected Degas.

Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

After the Bath (Woman Drying Herself)

Edgar Degas, 1896

Painted in three hues, only two more than a sculpture like Danaid, After the Bath (Woman Drying Herself) isn’t so much an illustration of a task as an emotional report on despair, not unlike the way he began his journey, with the nudes in Scenes of War. Eleven years later, at 83, Degas was dead.