Degas' nudes make splash at Paris Orsay museum

An exhibition by French painter Edgar Degas opens this week at the Paris Orsay museum, with some 170 paintings, prints and sculptures focusing exclusively on female nudes.

His paintings of women bathing and prostitutes eyeing potential customers concentrate on the body rather than any facial features, with later works turning nearly representational in their rendition of naked thighs and torsos.

"Maybe I too often look on women as animals," the painter once confessed.

"When Degas started to make a name for himself, he found that his paintings of dancers, horses or scenes of contemporary life sold at a premium compared to his nudes," according to Xavier Rey, curator of the exhibition which is jointly organised with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

"Over time, nudes became ever more his own private domain," he added.

"Degas was into experimentation. He tried out all possible techniqes," said Rey.

He ranged from drawing to oil painting, sculpture to pastel, his preferred technique which allowed him to constantly rework his paintings.

Degas, who is regarded as one of the fathers of impressionism, kicked off his classical art education in Rome where he followed evening classes at the Medici Villa.

He drew nudes from models and later launched into historical scene pieces, much in fashion at the time.

In 1865, he exhibited "a scene from the Middle Ages" picturing violence inflicted by men on horseback to women.

Conflict between the sexes is also the subject of his painting "the Interior", also known as "Rape", painted around 1868, which depicts a man standing over a woman, wearing only a shirt. Her corset lies on the ground and a lamp lights up the scene.

In his early drawings of the scene, the woman, her breasts bare, grips her petticoat in an apparent plea with the man standing, legs apart, his back to the door.

The exhibition brings together graphic works from the museum's rich collection, along with works loaned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Chicago Art Institute, and the New York Metropolitan Museum.

Degas, a confirmed bachelor who lived from 1832 to 1883, often sought out brothels as scenes for his paintings.

In the late 1870s, he drew a series of small monographs depicting fleshy and indolent prostitutes receiving well-clad customers. Many of these works, which were not meant for public display, were found in the artist's workshop after his death.

Beginning in the 1880s, Degas began focusing on women in their everyday intimate moments, washing, drying themselves, combing their hair.

Nothing of the often rotund or tubby women is left to the imagination and the painter often made wax figures as preparation for his paintings.

Towards the end of his life, women become more and more representational in their form, as illustrated by a 1896 oil painting entitled "After the bath" in which a women bends over her towel, with strong lines reminiscent of later works by Picasso and Matisse.

The exhibition, which opens on Tuesday, runs until July 1.


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