Edgar Degas, Woman Adjusting her Hair, c.1884

Edgar Degas, Woman Adjusting her Hair, c.1884 Charcoal, chalk and pastel. 63 x 59.9cm The Courtauld Gallery

Edgar Degas, Woman Adjusting her Hair, c.1884
Charcoal, chalk and pastel. 63 x 59.9cm
The Courtauld Gallery

A woman arches her back, twisting elegantly to the side, as she daintily raises her hands to her head, forming neat, careful, mirrored triangles. Her form is made up of frantic, expressive strokes of black charcoal, singed onto the buff paper with latent energy. This overspills into colour: zingy bursts of sunburnt orange, and rich, luscious green echo her movements. As do further sweeps of charcoal surrounding her figure: the ghost of a previous outline, abandoned by the artist, whose continued presence lends a sense of animation. In the foreground, an indistinguishable flurry takes place – the back of a leg, or the swish of a skirt – and the woman in question seemingly turns towards it, as another part within a precisely synchronised whole. Yet while the piece is by Edgar Degas, notorious for his effervescent depictions of the changing life of the ballet, this window reveals the careful orchestration that also took place within everyday life: in this case, as contained within a milliner’s shop. Amidst the movement of Degas’s piece, rest and relief lies in the bottom right-hand corner, where graceful folds of cloth lie sculpturally. They are seemingly set apart from the rest of the composition, reverently bathed in light, which highlights their soft luminosity. This focus on dress connected to a shift that was concurrently occurring: fashion was beginning to gain the momentum that would lead it to where it is today. The world’s first department stores had only recently been set up, in Paris, and began to offer, for the first time, garments that could be bought off the shelf, with little to no need for alteration. This set in motion the path to mass-produced clothing and the fast fashion available today, and such changes captured the attention of contemporary artists and intellectuals. They corresponded in particular with the Impressionist penchant for the pursuit of the new, the capturing of the contemporary. Édouard Manet once declared: ‘the latest fashion is absolutely necessary for a painter. It is what matters most!’ Degas was no exception, and the careful, loving attention he paid to the materiality of dress, in what is by far the most fully worked section of the study, advocated fashion, its importance, and nodded towards its serious social implications, during the 1880s and today alike. A quiet moment of appreciation towards female finery, within a rushing whirlwind towards modernity as we know it.

Source:

Darragon, É. (1924) Manet, Paris.