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.