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The Bidet. Monotype on laid paper. 7.5 x 5.2 cm. Circa 1880. Janis 193, Cachin 150.
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About 1876/77 Degas began to tackle the subject of prostitution in his printed work, a provocative theme chosen to show how rigorous and radical he was in his determination to portray la vie moderne even in its most depressing aspects. This choice of subject also revealed Degas as a child of his time, as two sensational naturalistic novels had just appeared about that moment which dealt with prostitution as a big city phenomenon: Marthe, histoire d’une fille by Joris-Karl Huysmans and the much acclaimed La Fille Élisa by Edmond de Goncourt. Degas’s scenes from the maisons closes are mainly small-format monotypes, a printing technique in which the artist draws directly onto the metal plate with printer’s ink without using either an etching needle or a burin. This technique generally permits just a single proof, but Degas often used to produce two or three impressions, which were correspondingly paler and subsequently were reworked with pastel. Degas’s unsparing depictions of the daily reality in the Parisian brothels would probably have been seen as extremely provocative and shocking at that time. For this reason the artist was always careful to conceal this aspect of his creative work from the eyes of the public. The portrayal of the bodies of the prostitutes, which are observed with cool, impersonal objectivity and an almost voyeuristic pleasure in the most intimate poses, enabled Degas to explore all the expressive possibilities of the nude female body. Until fairly recently these creations were regarded as indecent and immoral, as may be seen from the fact that one of the original zinc plates of this cycle was kept under lock and key in the so-called “hell” of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris (see Xavier Rey, “Le corps exploité: Degas dans les maisons closes” in the exhibition catalogue Degas et le nu, Boston-Paris 2011–2012, p. 97). What strikes the modern viewer about these impressions from the secret world of the maisons closes is the extraordinary power of the characterization and the brilliant draughtsman’s skills which Degas has drawn on to capture the activities of prostitutes and their clients in the dimly lit salons and bedrooms with a sober, analytical eye and without any moral attitudinizing. No artist before or since has succeeded in showing the aberrations of the human libido so vividly.
This portrayal of a prostitute squatting on a bidet washing herself demonstrates Degas’s graphic skill. It would appear that in the space of a few seconds and with only a few lines the artist has caught the intimate act in brief outline yet with incredible accuracy. The monotype was reproduced in 1934 as a vignette in Ambroise Vollard’s edition of the novel La Maison Tellier by Guy de Maupassant. Françoise Cachin, the author of the catalogue raisonné of monotypes, has been unable to trace any impression of this print.