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.…

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