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Degas & Women

The Spectacular Body: Science, Method and Meaning in the Work of Degas

by Anthea Callen
Yale University Press, 244 pp., $50.00

At first glance, Degas’s representation of prostitutes and women bathing might seem poor candidates for the admiration of art historians and critics who are women. Women, moreover, will take little pleasure in his aphorisms, for example: “Art is a vice; one does not marry it legitimately, one rapes it.”1 Yet over the past decade many women have paid special attention to his nudes in articles, catalogs, and books. Among them, and writing as feminists, are Carol Armstrong, Norma Broude, Anthea Callen, Hollis Clayson, Heather Dawkins, Wendy Lesser, Eunice Lipton, and Griselda Pollock. Armstrong, Broude, Lesser, and Lipton conclude that Degas did not exhibit the customary male dominance and instead created images of women who are involved with their own bodies without regard for a male viewer. Broude goes so far as to consider Degas a protofeminist. Of course there is no one woman’s or feminist’s outlook. Callen, Clayson, and Dawkins take the opposing point of view, arguing that Degas embodied the dominant masculinity of his era.2

The nudes by Degas that have drawn so much attention are of two kinds: monotypes of the later Seventies and early Eighties, and pastels mostly of the Eighties and Nineties, although nudes also appear in a few etchings and oil paintings, and in innumerable drawings. To make a monotype Degas drew directly on a metal plate, placed a piece of paper on it, and passed it through an etching press.3 Many of the monotypes represent the interiors of brothels in an evocative shorthand of smeary inks, in which the women are given only indistinct settings with generalized images of tubs, beds, sofas, walls, and mirrors. Usually the monotypes depict prostitutes sitting or reclining, often with legs apart showing the pubic triangle, and occasionally with their hands placed on their genitals. A very few show sex with male clients (but only discreetly shielded cunnilingus and fellatio), a handful show a male client standing among the women; and a few others indicate the edge of a man’s clothing as he enters the room.

The most extensive study of Degas’s representations of prostitutes is Hollis Clayson’s Painted Love (1991), an investigation of prostitution in the art of Degas and Manet, with some attention also to Cézanne, Renoir, and illustrators for the popular press. Clayson stresses that clandestine prostitution was perceived as a new social scourge when it became, during the Seventies, more common than “tolerated” prostitution in registered brothels. Clandestine prostitution was seen by many as especially troublesome because these freelance prostitutes looked like many other women, and therefore could not be readily categorized. Clayson writes mostly about restaurant servers, café-concert entertainers, milliners, and laundresses, all of whom were widely perceived as including clandestine prostitutes, but she has an important chapter on Degas’s monotypes of brothel workers. She reminds us that Degas’s idiosyncratic shorthand has been seen as modern because its spontaneous realism seems free of the usual artistic formulas, lacking the finished surface and treatment of details that were required by convention. Clayson does not accept this definition of “modern” because it is limited to issues of style. She acknowledges that the monotypes have a radically new pictorial form; but she argues that instead of dealing with the clandestine prostitution that was current in the Seventies and Eighties, they conform to the old-fashioned image of the police-regulated brothel staffed by a single brutalized and criminal type. From the perspective of sexual politics of the Impressionist era, Degas, she concludes, cannot be judged as progressive or modern.

Clayson convincingly develops the idea that in his monotypes Degas undermined the male viewer’s erotic expectations. By refusing to show seductive women and the usual domination of the male client, he converted sex to a purely economic transaction.4 The monotypes might therefore be considered modern insofar as they show sex as a material commodity and the brothel as an “enclave of modern urban coldness.” Nonetheless, Clayson insists that Degas was not more enlightened than his male peers, but shared their prejudices: for prostitutes he used the type of head and body then associated with sexual deviants, criminals, and the lower classes: simian features, low foreheads, and thick, heavy figures.

We know that half a dozen of the brothel monotypes were given to male friends but that none was seen in public during Degas’s lifetime. On the other hand, Degas’s pastel nudes, commonly referred to as “Bathers,” were very public. Six were shown together as “a suite of nudes” in the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886, and they were widely commented upon in the press. These pastels, much larger than the monotypes, have the size and ambition of easel paintings. In them we find nude women standing and seated, drying themselves with towels (sometimes with a maid’s help), or bending over, crouching, and occasionally bathing in portable tubs. Several have relatively young and conventionally beautiful bodies, but more are pudgy and middle-aged. Nearly all have limbs and bodies oddly foreshortened in unorthodox close-ups, frequently viewed from above. Most critics in 1886, astonished at the pastels’ departures from traditional beauty, declared the women in them to be animal-like; some hinted that Degas had depicted prostitutes and most took them to be portraying lower-middle-class or working-class women.

Because the Bathers were so remote from the idealized nudes of convention, it was easy then and afterward to conclude that Degas was a misogynist who treated women cruelly, as well as a voyeur, probably an impotent one (there is no evidence that he had any romantic attachment). This was once a widespread view among Degas’s historians, although it was also well known that many unmarried male professionals limited themselves to what were then called the “hygienic outlets” for paid sex. Two facts recently brought to light should end all speculation about Degas’s impotence. In a letter of August 1889, on the eve of a visit to Spain, Degas gave his traveling companion, Giovanni Boldini, a discreet address where he should buy “a large number” of condoms, for, he wrote, “there can be seductions, in first place for you, but even for me, in Andalusia. And we should only bring back good things from this trip. Enough said.”5 And later Degas admitted to a professional model, who was amazed at his vulgar and aggressive language, that in his youth he had had his share of venereal disease.6

In feminist studies of Degas’s prostitutes and Bathers, such biographical facts tend to have only a minor place. The principal idea of their new interpretations has been that of “the gaze,” a once innocent term that now bears many layers of meaning. “The gaze” refers to the vantage point of both artist and viewer of a picture. The artist does not simply perceive or interpret a pre-existing scene; he literally constructs it by making plausible arrangements of various forms, and he places the eye of the viewer where his own was. In doing so he reveals assumptions that derive in part from his society and in part from his inner being.7 Examining both kinds of assumptions permits the historian to deal with social history as well as with artistic psychology. As for the female viewer, her gaze is partly controlled by the artist, but only partly since her gender and her culture will usually be different from those of the artist. For historians who are women, renderings of the female body are ideal for studying the divergence between artist and viewer, because unlike men, for whom a woman’s image is distinctly Other, female viewers can imagine their own bodies in such images. In the current phrase, a woman is both viewer and subject.

One of the most brilliant studies of the gaze in Degas’s Bathers is Carol Armstrong’s Odd Man Out (1991).8 Among her examples is The Tub (Musée d’Orsay), in which we are closely positioned above the back of a nude crouched down in a round metal tub. Armstrong says that because the woman’s body is turned in upon itself and rendered uninviting by its odd position (so unlike the traditional reclining pose), the male viewer does not have “access” to her. His gaze is repulsed and, with it, the sense of what it would be like to touch the body, which is dependent upon readily imagined contact through sight. True, the viewer sees the crouching nude as very near to him, and some might conclude that this puts both viewer and artist in a dominant male position. For Armstrong, however, this is an outsider’s eye, a disembodied gaze that sees but is excluded. The male viewer is not allowed to imagine sexual possession of the woman because her body and mind are turned inward, an attitude that Armstrong calls “reflexivity.” This is a conception that seems to arise from Armstrong’s empathy with the image of a woman. The male historian, however, might well retain the dominant position when considering the painting; his gender may create the condition of Otherness that hers dissolves.

When Armstrong grants the nudes an inward life she treats them as creatures whom Degas, like Pygmalion, has made into real human beings. Yet when Armstrong turns to his later Bathers of the Nineties, the models’ “reflexivity” seems to fade away to become an attribute of the artist himself. In these pastels, she argues, Degas’s now rough and obvious streaks of pastel call attention to themselves. They so effectively screen the nude from the onlooker’s tactile imagination that the viewer is more conscious of the techniques by which Degas created the Bathers than of their nude bodies: Degas, she writes, was therefore hovering on the edge of modernist abstraction. In reaching this conclusion, Armstrong reinstates the divorce of style from content that Clayson’s book argues against.

Indeed, Armstrong’s approach to the nudes of the Eighties and Nineties is so steeped in deconstruction and concern for abstraction (she cites Clement Greenberg more than once) that issues of sexuality and social class virtually disappear from her discussion. Earlier in her book, when writing about Degas in the Seventies, she provides an abundance of social history and social commentary (most fascinatingly concerning Degas’s devotion to the rehearsal rooms and corridors of the opera). However, she then asserts that from the mid-Eighties onward, Degas withdrew from his earlier social interests into the “retreat, interiority, and interiorized sensation” that characterized early modern art. Degas’s webs of colored marks show the dominance of artifice over realism, “as if these bodies were formed by blind marks made on a surface by touch, and not by sight at all.” Because the marks of the pastel partially obliterate women who are their subject, they create “a completely solipsistic, completely artifice-bound world which has nothing to do with natural or organic processes, and everything to do with its own procedures, those of image-making.” As we shall see, this view has been challenged by other women art historians.

Anthea Callen, who has been writing about Degas and Impressionism for several years, is the latest feminist to address herself to Degas’s nudes. One chapter of The Spectacular Body discusses Degas’s portraits, but her book is mainly devoted to the issues surrounding the monotypes and the Bathers. She can be readily distinguished from writers who are not, like herself, ardent feminists, but also from other feminists, whose work her own analysis implicitly comments upon. For an older male historian, to read Callen’s book is to learn much about the ways that feminists are transforming art history.

Callen disputes Armstrong’s deconstructionist approach, which, in her view, aestheticizes Degas’s nudes. She insists instead on the relevance of sexuality and social class in the evaluation of these images. This does not mean that she suppresses the visual qualities of Degas’s pastel strokes in favor of discussing their social implications. Among the most engaging features of her book is her sensitive reading of the artist’s pastel marks. She comments on their physicality, their departure from the “blurred softness and charm” that had previously characterized painting in pastels.

His marks were usually left raw and unblended, each separate touch and striation a witness to the painter’s actions, his surfaces scarred with the built-up layering of powdery pigment. His pastels…encode the sensation of touch—both the artist’s touch and the experience of touching skin. His handling of pastel secures the medium’s particular aptness as metaphor for the texture of skin, and particularly female flesh, since the sense of touch was associated with the feminine.

Building upon such close readings of technique, Callen shows that Degas’s prostitutes and Bathers exemplify the anatomical codes that align him with the sexual and social views of his class and gender. By looking at a woman, Callen writes, men believed they could stipulate her class and morality, and, accordingly, could make judgments about her. This control of the social position of women through the male gaze drew on the claims of recent science (including the work of Lombroso and Charcot), which classified prostitutes, criminals, poor women, and the insane on the basis of physiognomics, a pseudoscience which alleged that the look and shape of head and body revealed the inner person. The ideally shaped human was derived from Greek sculpture and was said to typify white Europeans; the opposite was the African black, whose supposedly characteristic imperfections were also found among European prostitutes and the working class. (These pervasive prejudices continued into our own century despite contemporaneous studies showing that prostitutes and criminals did not conform to standard body types.)

Armstrong, it is true, is also alert to the relevance of physiognomics, but she believes that in the brothel monotypes Degas gave up his earlier interest in this pseudoscience. According to her, Degas’s smeary forms strip the women’s bodies of the descriptive detail that would have given them a representational and social function. Instead we see in the artist’s inky gestures “images of body parts caught up in the sensation of themselves,” another version of her idea of “reflexivity.” This amounts to a more erudite and deconstructionist endorsement of Eunice Lipton’s earlier interpretation of Degas’s prostitutes and Bathers, according to which the artist invites the viewer “to focus empathetically on the woman’s own experience of her body.”9

Personifying the nudes in this fashion, as if they somehow existed apart from Degas’s creation of them, is far from Callen’s approach. Drawing upon earlier scholars’ work on the implications of physiognomics,10 she pays particular attention to Degas’s amazingly realistic wax sculpture Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, whose features—a lopsided, flattened head, an “elongated muzzle,” as Callen puts it, and thick hair—matched those that physiognomics claimed for working-class and potentially criminal types. (Young ballet dancers were then drawn almost exclusively from the working class, as indeed was Marie van Goethem, the model for this work.) In 1881 Degas exhibited this sculpture in a glass case, like a scientific specimen, together with pastels of three accused murderers. Callen concludes that Degas’s conceptions of anatomy and facial types should not be treated simply as “artistic inspiration,” as male art historians have done, but as showing how Degas combined art, science, an acceptance of official attitudes, and an awareness of modern trends in an assortment of masculinist views of women. “The languages of science and medicine provided the artist with a new vocabulary of visual signs to modernize conventional pictorial codes and give art new representational powers—while simultaneously validating the authority of science.”

Believing as she does that Degas imposes a very masculine gaze, Callen denies anything like Armstrong’s attribution of “reflexivity” or interior experience to his Bathers. She agrees that their spaces are private and female, but the feminine “interiority” ascribed to these figures cannot in her view simply be regarded as a positive attribute, or as one which precludes a male gaze. First, it is an interiority envisaged by Degas, and thus the public property of men. Moreover, she adds,

it represents man’s desire to articulate, and thereby hold, that pivotal, controlling position. At the same time, this interiority designates women as “mysterious”: an enigma to be solved by man, the investigator. Degas assigns to his own sex the power to see, to know and give meaning to woman, as she is incapable of knowing herself—incapable of consciousness.

Having aligned Degas’s artistic gaze with masculine surveillance, Callen feels justified in concluding that the pastel Bathers are prostitutes. This is, however, a contestable conclusion, all the more so since the acknowledged differences between the brothel monotypes and the pastel Bathers have long made the identity of the Bathers a matter of dispute. Armstrong, for her part, fudges the distinction between the prostitutes and the Bathers, letting the reader assume that the Bathers are prostitutes without insisting on it. Eunice Lipton was the first feminist to make a strong case for the Bathers being prostitutes. Bourgeois women, she wrote, did not bathe often, and even so, Degas would not have been able to see them (an argument that is surely naive when we consider Degas’s famous reliance upon invention). Prostitutes, however, had to bathe frequently, and are shown doing so in Degas’s mono-types. Further, Lipton argued, their unidealized bodies are more readily associated with working-class women than with women of Degas’s own class. Callen writes with greater subtlety, but endorses Lipton’s view.

I cannot agree that the Bathers are necessarily prostitutes. In the monotypes the sex workers make excessively vulgar gestures and sit or recline with legs splayed to expose public hair; they have very heavy bodies and physiognomy’s allegedly “criminal” faces. None of this is true of the typical Bather. In view of Degas’s often-voiced determination to make traditional subjects modern (for example, turning classical nymphs into young ballet rats), why cannot we accept his Bathers as modern bourgeois nudes? Degas himself gave witness to this possibility. While staying with his friend Alexis Rouart in the winter of 1880, he initiated work on Leaving the Bath, a drypoint and aquatint that gives a rear view of a chunky, middle-aged woman stepping awkwardly out of a tub. Her type and the composition conform to those of the pastel Bathers. Degas remarked to his host that “our friend Mme [X] must look like this when she gets out of the bath.” 11

My view on this question may well be seen as that of a male historian, but even so, the issues I address here would not have been considered important until feminists drew the attention of art historians to the fact that images of women cannot be understood independently of the artist’s interpretation of gender. Male and female historians will no longer be able to assess Degas without taking account of the books of Clayson, Armstrong, and Callen. Because Callen blends her own insights with the alertness to the social and class considerations we find in Clayson’s work and the visual acuity that distinguishes Armstrong’s analyses, her book is welcome as a jolt to older historians who need to be shocked into a new awareness of the complicated meanings of Degas’s prostitutes and Bathers. With her help they will better appreciate another of Degas’s aphorisms: “A painting is a thing which requires as much trickery, malice, and vice as the perpetration of a crime; make counterfeits and add a touch of nature.”12

Letters

Correction May 9, 1996

  1. 1

    L’art c’est le vice, on ne l’épouse pas légitimement, on le viole!” In P.A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, four volumes (1946; reprinted by Garland, 1984), Volume I,p.119.

  2. 2

    Norma Broude, “Degas’s ‘Misogyny,” Art Bulletin (March 1977), and “Edgar Degas and French Feminism ca. 1880,” Art Bulletin (December 1988); Wendy Lesser, His Other Half (Harvard University Press, 1991); Eunice Lipton, Looking into Degas: Uneasy Images of Women and Modern Life (University of California Press, 1986); Heather Dawkins, “Managing Degas” and “Frogs, Monkeys and Women: A History of Identifications Across a Phantastic Body,” in Richard Kendall and Griselda Pollock, editors, Dealing with Degas: Representations of Women and the Politics of Vision, (Universe, 1992).

  3. 3

    Printing a monotype gave only one strong image because most of the ink was transferred to the paper, but Degas often made one or two faint impressions by putting the plate through the press again. He reworked these pale images in pastel, making many changes to produce colored hybrids, often of a quite different character. Some of the hybrids, transformed into less shocking subjects, were exhibited in the Impressionist exhibitions beginning in 1877.

  4. 4

    This is a view well defended by Charles Bernheimer, “Degas’s Brothels: Voyeurism and Ideology,” Representations (Fall 1987), reprinted with few changes in his Figures of Ill Repute: Representing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century France (Harvard University Press, 1989). Bernheimer acknowledged the dissertations of Clayson (1984) and Armstrong (1986) before they were reworked as published books.

  5. 5

    Il peut y avoir séduction, pour vous d’abord, puis même pour moi, en Andalousie. Et nous ne devons rapporter de ce voyage que du bien! A bon entendeur, suffit.” In Degas inédit, actes du colloque Degas, Musée d’Orsay (La Documentation Française, 1989), p.418.

  6. 6

    Alice Michel, “Degas et son modèle,” Mercure de France (February 1919), cited by Heather Dawkins, “Frogs, Monkeys and Women,” in Dealing with Degas, p. 211. Dawkins, a feminist, takes male art historians to task for failing to draw lessons from Degas’s salty language and aggressive masculinity as revealed in Michel’s autobiographical article. Her essay is a fine example of how feminists reinterpret the written record that male historians have unwittingly screened.

  7. 7

    For feminists, it is the failure to consider “the gaze” and its implications that condemns even the best male historians’ writings on Degas’s nudes, such as Richard Thomson, Degas: The Nudes (Thames and Hudson, 1988) and Richard Kendall, editor, Degas: Images of Women (Liverpool, Tate Gallery, 1989). Feminists tend also to regard the conventional deployment of artistic “influences” and narrative interpretations as peculiarly masculine. Since I am writing about Degas in this essay, I will simplify my pronouns by treating the artist as male and the viewer as female.

  8. 8

    Armstrong preceded her book with an article whose feminist context gave it wide currency, “Edgar Degas and the Representation of the Female Body,” in Susan Rubin Suleiman, editor, The Female Body in Western Culture (Harvard University Press, 1986). Like other feminists who focus on the gaze, Armstrong owes a debt to Laura Mulvey’s pioneering article of 1975, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” reprinted in Mulvey’s Visual and Other Pleasures (Indiana University Press, 1989).

  9. 9

    Degas Bathers: The Case for Realism,” Arts Magazine (May 1980), p. 97. The article is substantially incorporated in her book of 1986 (see footnote 2).

  10. 10

    Douglas W. Druick and Peter Zegers, “Le réalisme scientifique, 1874–1881,” in Jean Boggs et al., Degas (Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Canada, Grand Palais, 1988–1989).

  11. 11

    Cited by Loys Delteil, Le Peintre graveur illustré: Degas (Paris: privately printed, 1919), Volume 9, No. 39.

  12. 12

    Un tableau est une chose qui exige autant de rouerie, de malice et de vice que la perpétration d’un crime, faites faux et ajoutez un accent de nature….” In Degas et son oeuvre, Volume I,p.119.

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