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  • Degas’ Bathers and Other People*
  • Charles Harrison (bio)

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Figure 1.

Edgar Degas, Woman Reclining on Her Bed, ca. 1885. Monotype, black ink on paper, 22.1 × 41.8 cm. Art Institute of Chicago (Clarence Buckingham Collection).

This paper was written in response to two different and in their ways equally vivid experiences. The first was an encounter with a monotype by Degas in the Art Institute of Chicago, a work from the mid-1880s, measuring approximately eight by sixteen inches (fig. 1). 1 To make a monotype the artist normally draws in printing ink directly onto an unabsorbent surface, such as an unmarked engraving plate. The plate is then put through a press, transferring a single clear image directly onto paper. Since the image is unfixed, this process effectively erases it, though sometimes a sufficient residue of ink is left on the plate to permit a second and fainter impression to be made. Where Degas recovered a second impression in this manner he would frequently work over it in pastel, developing the motif substantially as he did so, sometimes adding paper to extend its margins and thus to enlarge the original pictorial space. He was to do just that with a second proof of the monotype from Chicago, adding strips of paper at top and bottom to make a nearly square overall image, in the process locating the represented figure at a more conventional distance from the picture plane, and thus transforming the effect of the composition. It is with the first and unaltered impression that I am principally concerned, however, since its very containment and darkness are crucial to its individuality.

In this case Degas worked in negative, covering the entire plate with a film of ink, then scraping, wiping and dabbing at the oily surface to produce an image. This image takes a moment to discern, as if we had to adjust our eyes to the darkness before it will come clear. What it shows is the nude body of a woman, reclining on a couch with her right elbow and forearm [End Page 57] close up to the picture plane at its lower edge, her raised left knee breaking the picture’s upper edge, and her legs extending into the deepest part of the pictorial space at the top right-hand corner. At the lower left corner a circular area has been wiped clean of ink to signify a table lamp. This forms the picture’s only light source. The figure’s head is particularly difficult to make out. This difficulty may be partly accounted for by the dazzling effect of the lamp, but there is also a suggestion that the head is as it were too close—too nearly identified with the picture plane itself—to bring properly into focus. It was this suggestion in particular that brought me up short when I first saw the monotype a few years ago. When combined with the literal and figurative darkness of the image, the effect was of something analogous to a failure or deprivation of the sense of sight. My first motive for this paper, then, was to explore and to explain that sense of failure or deprivation. I shall take a long way round in the attempt to do so, but I shall come back to the monotype in the end.

There is one last point I should make in introducing the image in question. As if to underline the uniqueness of the impression, the artist marked it not simply with a signature but with a dedication, “Degas à Burty.” Philippe Burty was a writer sympathetic to the work of the Impressionists and a major collector of modern prints, Degas’ very much included. This was not a work conceived for exhibition, then. It was a gift to a male friend, as were three other related monotypes showing nude female figures, each of which is named for a different recipient. 2 In the climate of art history and art criticism that now surrounds the work of Degas there is an uncomfortable implication to be drawn from these dedications. It is best that [End Page 58] we face it squarely. It concerns...

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