National treasures – Degas: After the Bath; Velazquez: Rokeby Venus

Continuing our series looking at great paintings housed in London’s National Gallery…

A rather racy pair of treasures this week.

Hilaire-Germaine-Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is considered to be one of the founders of Impressionism (he exhibited with Monet et al) but in fact he rejected the label – calling himself a ‘Realist’ – and was often highly critical of the movement.

Although vaguely Impressionistic in its hazy tones, After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself (which hangs in Room 46, on the right as you go in) shows that the difference between Degas and, for example, Monet is line. Impressionism made line subservient to colour; Degas described himself as ‘a colourist with line’ – and this pastel drawing is all about line.

Specifically, it is about a pair of almost-parallel lines: the one that runs from the top of the subject’s left shoulder blade and down her spine; and the one that divides the top of her left thigh from her stomach.

Now, there’s no getting away from this. I haven’t done a scientific study, but I’ll bet that male gallery-goers linger longer in this corner of Room 46 than female ones. Just as they do at Diego Velazquez’s The Toilet of Venus (aka ‘The Rokeby Venus’).

Here again it is the lines that transfix. I hardly need to point out which lines – the eye can’t help but run down their lovingly-crafted contours.

After the Bath is often described as a voyeuristic picture. Certainly it’d be hard to make a case that it’s a feminist one. The subject, faceless, is depersonalised and the viewing angle is as through a keyhole. The Rokeby Venus at least has a face, but it is a blurred and distant reflection, an afterthought compared to the meticulously-drawn, glowing botty. If anything, Velazquez’s painting is even more blatantly lascivious: though perfectly formed, there’s nothing supernatural about this Venus, the goddess status is conferred only by the rather glum-looking Cupid and looks to me like nothing more than an excuse for a painting of  female curves.

Is there anything wrong with that? Art is supposed to be about beauty; and these are, for men, the Lines of Beauty – the sort that bring a chap to a halt mid-sentence, or launch the odd thousand ships here and there. To dismiss these pictures as voyeuristic would be to ignore their tenderness. Tenderness is definitely there, but it’s still probably not wise to linger too obviously in rooms 46 and 30 if in company.

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10 thoughts on “National treasures – Degas: After the Bath; Velazquez: Rokeby Venus

    December 13, 2010 at 09:31

    It’s a bit early in the morning to play the perv – or the pedant – but are we not a bit too high for the key-hole in Venus’ toilet? If we can see her shadowy face, she must be able to see us (him). And if it is the lines that transfix, then what about the line from her eye in the mirror to his, the painter? How tall was Diego?
    So that’s settled – he was in the room. Is it hot in here, or is it me?

  2. Worm
    December 13, 2010 at 10:04

    I’ve never seen the Degas before – I like it! (I shall overlook her yellow slippers)

    Always wondered how much of the erotic charge and artistic merit of the rokeby venus is because her bum is simply smaller, perter and more to our current tastes than many of the other more amply upholstered naked ladies painted by the old masters?

  3. Brit
    December 13, 2010 at 10:27

    Ah Mahlerman, you’ll note that I referred to ‘After the Bath’ as being a ‘through the keyhole’ view… I’m not sure whether the Rokeby Venus is likewise, but will bow to your clearly expert knowledge in this area and agree that it’s too high.

    Worm – re the yellow slippers, some book or other I have somewhere referred to the colours Degas uses as ‘arbitrary’ – eg. the striking blue shading on the wicker chair.

    December 13, 2010 at 10:45

    In his forties when Velazquez painted the delectable derrière he was past the first flush and could bring appreciation to the easel, it shows, as for Degas, who had to wash all of those towels?.
    Man’s downfall, the female form, unless you’re gay of course.

    Gadjo Dilo
    December 13, 2010 at 11:04

    Mm, with you on the lines. But having the kid in the room largely ruins any eroticism for me. Any chance of giving us Manet’s Olympia next?

    December 13, 2010 at 11:25

    Quite so Brit – apologies. And although the angles from subject to viewer are similar in both, the absence of a face in the Degas, and more than a suggestion of a private act laid bare, give it a disconcerting frisson-unless you’re gay, of course. And even if you are made of the right stuff there is, sadly, very little in either of these great pictures to stir the vitals as, these days, it is almost impossible to take ten steps without seeing acres of flesh, and worse. Perhaps Susan, our resident writer on these matters can one day take us back to when the sight of an ankle, and much later a stocking top, was the high water mark in a gentleman’s day?

    December 13, 2010 at 11:32

    Too true, Mahlerman. The performances by Rihanna and the shouty Aguilera person on supposed family show The X Factor this weekend would have seen everyone involved arrested for indecency a few years ago.

  8. Gaw
    December 13, 2010 at 11:59

    For those with an interest, ahem, Bonnard made a career out of ladies abluting. Rightly – and politely – labelled an Intimiste.

    But the most obsessive painter of ladies’ bottoms was surely Cezanne – it’s just he found their images in pieces of fruit, eventually inspiring The Stranglers and their beach-side peach-spotting.

    December 13, 2010 at 12:16

    That ultimate 3D bumfest The Three Graces, shared between the Scottish National and its English counterpart is displayed in a prominent position, the vast majority of viewers are women, what’s all that about? Did ‘ole Antonio suspect that his target audience would be predominantly female, a veritable comparison fest.
    “Mine doesn’t look like that, does it?”

    Toby Ash
    December 13, 2010 at 17:47

    I love a bit of Bottycelli

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