The Voyeuristic Nudes of Edgar Degas

The impressionist painter Edgar Degas is probably most well known for his portrayal of dancers obscured by layers of tulle and crinoline. His paintings of Paris in the mid to late 1800’s reflected the life that he saw around him.

Although most of his work was done in the studio either from memory or using models to pose, his paintings capture snapshots of life in almost documentary fashion. So it is no surprise that when his subject matter turned to portraying the female nude, his approach was one that combined both the everyday activities in which a woman would be found nude with a sort of artistic detachment. This results in conveying the feeling through paint and canvas that one is looking upon something that maybe they shouldn’t.

Later in his career, Degas painted a series of portraits of women in various stages of bathing. In all cases they are intent on whatever it is they are doing, they do not acknowledge the viewer; the style of painting making them softly obscured. It is through the setting and detailing of this intense personal intimacy that Degas makes the viewer feel almost intrusive. But there is an erotic thrill in this intrusion. Who hasn’t felt that tingle of glee when seeing something they know is private through a door ajar or an unshielded window at night?

From a young age most of us are taught about the privacy of the body. Soon we are taught to respect that privacy, to look away, to cover up. We are told that to do anything else would be ‘naughty’ or perhaps ‘inappropriate’. It is no wonder then, that when presented with a clear intrusion on someone else’s most intimate space we feel a stirring. I am inundated (often by choice) with images of nudity and sexuality regularly. In some ways, the body should no longer be a mystery. And yet, what I find erotic about these nude paintings of Degas is the way they pull me back to feeling slightly guilty about enjoying the looking. These women are not trying to be sexual or erotic. They are just women- stripped down in their personal space, preparing to cover themselves and be presented to the world. And yet these women become sexual and erotic through the ‘accidental’ exposure of the paintings of their privacy and the act of you and me the viewers looking on.

article by Kayla

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