Degas’ Woman Drying Her Foot (1885-6)

This pastel by Edgar Degas of a nude woman drying her foot is one of many such nudes from the 1880's for which the model always posed in his studio. If Degas is a great master (which, of course, he was and is) then his art must reflect the making of the work itself in his imagination.  As the many examples on EPPH demonstrate, it appears to be something of a requirement in art though it has never been considered by any Degas expert before. Let's give it a go....

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Captions for image(s) above:

Degas, Woman Drying Her Foot (1885-6) Pastel on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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As regular users know, an outstretched arm often symbolizes the artist's active arm stretched towards the canvas, like Ingres, an inspiration to Degas, at right.1 It is little-known, though, that cloths are also used in studios to rub in paint or wipe down a canvas as Ingres again does in his self-portrait (right).2 Thus the nude rubbing herself with a towel and outstretched arm is painting her own body. The model who is said to resemble one (and a prostitute too) is "Degas the artist". Subject and object, male and female, have been fused while any sexual connotation refers metaphorically to Degas' conception.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Degas' Woman Drying Her Foot
Right: Detail inverted of Ingres' 1804 Self-portrait (a copy by Julie Forestier)

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Once noted, the model's hand on the other towel draws attention to itself. It too must be the artist's resting on unpainted "canvas" while representing the tabula rasa of his mind.  Titian's hand does likewise in his Self-portrait. Thus Degas-as-model begins his conception with his left hand on a "blank slate" but ends up with his "right hand" painting "himself."

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Degas' Woman Drying Her Foot
Right: Detail of Titian's Self-portrait (early 1550's) Oil on canvas. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

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It is a traditional feature of self-referential art and literature to include what Jennifer Bryan calls in devotional texts of the 15th century an "occulted signature."3 Here Degas' "face" emerges from the hanging section of the towel (top) with a long nose and slightly  concave tip.4 Above the "nose" is the ball of cloth, circular and white to represent the "inner eye" of his mind.5

In the lower diagram "eyes" appear in the towel near which she sits. One is light and open for normal perception; the other dark and thus closed for insight. Contrasting eyes have long been a self-referential feature too. Here, as in the many examples under Insight-Outsight, the model sits above the artist's "eyes" as though present in his mind.6

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Diagram of a detail of Degas'  Woman Drying Her Foot with inset detail of Degas' Self-portrait with his Palette (1854) 
Bottom: Diagram of a detail of Degas'  Woman Drying Her Foot

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What we are looking at has never been seen in Degas' art before except by visual poets like Picasso who continued the same theme in his own images of models, with or without an artist present.7 In both cases we are viewing a mental image in the artist's mind of his own imagination creating the very image we see. You may like to look for these hidden meanings in other bathing nudes by Degas because they must all be variations on the same themes.  

 

Captions for image(s) above:

Degas, Woman Drying Her Foot (1885-6)

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Notes:

1. Other examples of figures with the outstretched arm of a painter include Titian's Noli Me Tangere (1510-11) and Assunta (1520), Michelangelo's Archers Shooting at a Herm (c. 1530's), Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Her Maidservant Slaying Holofernes (1612-13),  Rubens' Miracles of St. Ignatius of Loyola (c.1619), Velazquez’s Prince Baltasar Carlos with a Dwarf (1632), Courbet's Bathers (1853) and Jean-Michel Basquiat's Self-portrait (1982).

2. For examples of artists using cloths, click here.

3. Bryan, Looking Inward: Devotional Reading and the Private Self in Late Medieval England (University of Pennsylvania Press) 2008, p. 75

4. This singular feature, the long nose sometimes with a concave tip, sometimes its entire length concave, later became the defining feature of Picasso's portraits of Degas as well.

5. Degas would have known from art that in the Renaissance the faculties of the mind, including the inner eye and imagination, were considered to be circular. To see the Cell Doctrine from Albertus Magnus, Philosophia pauperum (1506), click here.

6. See the theme, Insight-Outsight.

7. See Picasso's Girl Before a Mirror (1932) and his Untitled Plate 58 from Suite 156 (1971).

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 23 Jun 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.