Soak it up! The Story of Degas’ Sponge.

L: Degas, Woman Having a Bath (c. 1886-8) Pastel on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Degas was a well-known miser so some people might still think of him as a sponge. That would be appropriate. Artists don't always handle brushes; they use anything that works, sponges included. A selection sold for use by artists is illustrated (above right). Degas, for instance, might well have used them to create the soft textures, especially of female skin, in his magical pastels. Why do I think that? Because several of his bathing women, including the one at left, brush the soft, textured material over their own skin to "paint" themselves just as artists do.

For many years I could not fathom how Degas' women "paint" themselves. He was clearly a great artist but though I had applied the concept to work by hundreds of others, it did not seem to work on him. His nudes appeared to be just beautiful depictions of the exterior world as they do to art lovers in general and scholars. Recently I had a break-through when I noticed that another Degas’ pastel, Woman Drying Her Foot (1885-6), also at the Metropolitan Museum, was in fact a metamorphosis of Ingres' early self-portrait in which he uses a cloth to wipe his canvas, just as the nude dries her foot with a towel. [See entry.] For the first time I understood his women: they are "painting" themselves with the very tools that artists use. Besides, they also stand in or near circular or oval tubs or use similar-shaped basins. These containers suggest both pots containing paint and, often, the form of the artist's eye as well. His creation, a female version of himself painting herself, is thus at work behind his "eye" on the inside of his mind.

All I can say is: thank God for perserverance. I knew Degas had to do what other great artists do or he would not have been recognized as one of them for so long. Subconsciously, the cognoscenti do recognize the links between great masters through being so familiar with so many images. They just cannot consciously describe what those links are. To do so, they would need to know, like you, that every painter paints himself because theory determines sight. So soak them up like a sponge; the more you see these metaphors at work, the more you'll know.

Reader Comments

I want to quote this in an article I’m writing on the female body and the sponge. To whom do I attribute this? I.e. who is the author??

Joyce Goggin
28 Aug 2018

I am the author of all the content on EPPH and the dates each page was posted online can be found near the bottom on a grey banner.

Simon Abrahams
29 Aug 2018

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