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The role of the brothel monotypes in Degas’s development of the imagery of the nude Young, Margaret Jane


Within the context of the revolution of subject matter in painting and sculpture that occurred during the nineteenth century, especially in the work of French painters, the imagery of the nude has been explored of late mostly with a view to illustrating the underlying sexism of these images and the degrading treatment of women as objects in these works. In this discussion, the work of Edgar Degas, an artist whose subject matter in his mature work is dominated by the nude, has been treated very little. Yet with Degas, the development of this imagery is particularly clearly demarcated throughout his career. The nudes of his early period, the history painting nudes, are very different than those of his mature work, those executed after c.1885. As well, the fact that Degas abandoned the subject for a period of almost twelve years would tend to indicate an abrupt change in his conception of the imagery from his early to his mature paintings. With the publication by Theodore Reff of Degas's notebooks, it is now possible to trace his development of the subject with firmer dates than was possible heretofore. As his first explorations of the subject in oil and pastel occur in 1879, it is then obvious that Degas's monotypes of bathers and brothels, executed c.1876-78, are his first real treatment of the nude of modern life, a discovery that makes the monotypes all important to this discussion. Further, it can be readily demonstrated upon close examination of these prints in relation to size, handling, motifs and poses that Degas did not consider the bathers and the prostitutes as two separate subjects and that the distinction is one imposed by later cataloguers of the monotypes. Degas's interest in the subject of prostitution is by no means an isolated case in the later nineteenth century in France. Other writers and artists chose it as one which conformed to the prevailing theories of naturalism as a truly modern theme. Nor did Degas ignore a long tradition of nineteenth century lithographs with naughty subjects in his depiction of the nudes. The interest in prostitution in this context and Degas's awareness of the lithographic tradition shed some light on the reaction of the press and audiences towards Degas's mature nudes that he exhibited in 1886. His public found the pastels and oils offensive, probably because the images did resemble the prints of the lithographers of the Romantic era and the paintings of similar subjects by other artists in the seventies and eighties whose subjects could be clearly identified with the subject of prostitution and were rejected by the official body, the annual Salon. Degas's later, mature nudes were regarded as slightly salacious subjects for many years and their initial reception by the public in the eighteen-eighties forms yet another chapter in the study of the changes in subject matter that were hotly debated in artistic circles during the nineteenth century and beyond.

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