Bonnard began his own bathing series featuring full-length bathtubs—a luxury in French homes at the time—with two lithographs of The Bath, produced around 1925 for the publisher Edmond Frappé. In this version, Bonnard clearly nods to Degas’s inventions—a direct approach to the naked female form captured from a high vantage point. The bather has been identified as Maria (“Marthe”) Boursin, a pretty model Bonnard met in Paris in 1893. By 1925 Bonnard and Marthe were married and had settled in a villa on the French Riviera. Marthe suffered from a skin malady that required long soaks in their newly installed bathtub, shown here.
Degas frequently revisited the theme of the bather between 1877 and 1908, often using tracing paper to rework earlier compositions. For Seated Nude Woman Drying Her Hair, he used charcoal to trace a female figure from an earlier pastel onto translucent paper, which was subsequently laid down on board, possibly by the artist himself. The result is one of Degas’s most radical bathing scenes, defined here by a cropped composition, subdued colors, and a harder, less sensuous form. Degas, who since 1895 had been struggling with myopia and extreme sensitivity to bright light, recycled the bather of the earlier image but cropped the tub, some drapery, and even parts of the body. Indeed, by 1902 Degas had moved toward a more fully abstract art, paving the way in Paris for the next major modern art movements, Fauvism and Cubism.
This canvas is unique in Degas’s oeuvre. He rarely used oil for his nudes in the 1880s; he seldom worked on a monumental scale (this is Degas’s third-largest painting); and he almost never abandoned a massive canvas at the laying-in, post-underdrawing stage. Among the painters who studied Degas’s unfinished masterpiece in the artist’s Paris studio was Paul Gauguin, who later quoted the standing bather in his painting Fatata te Miti (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), completed during his first trip to Tahiti.
Four Bathers by Degas and Bonnard
April 20–August 14, 2011
Four Bathers by Degas and Bonnard offers an intimate look at bathing scenes by Edgar Degas (1834–1917) and Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) completed in France between 1884 and 1925. This focused installation of four works drawn from the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection unites for the first time two rarely seen pastel drawings and one massive unfinished canvas by Degas with a lithograph by Bonnard from his celebrated series of female bathers in full-length bathtubs. Considering the light-sensitive nature of these extremely popular objects, Four Bathers by Degas and Bonnard will be on view for a limited time.
This installation has been organized by Rich Aste, Curator of European Art, Brooklyn Museum.