Edgar Degas was a notoriously private and politically conservative man. He was perhaps the most outspoken anti-Semite of the Impressionist artists, and a staunch anti-Dreyfusard at the height of the Dreyfus Affair. It would therefore be a bit stupefying to consider him a champion of women’s rights, but that’s precisely what some scholars have sought to do through the analysis of his artwork.
One widely recognised strand of feminist analysis in relation to Degas artwork was set forth by Norma Broude in The Art Bulletin (1988). Two Degas paintings and a series of brothel monotypes were examined within the framework of broad support for French feminism in the 1880s. But are the proposals valid? The study of one Degas painting, The Young Spartans, is particularly fascinating. The traditional view is that the painting depicts a group of male and female Spartans before an athletic competition; Sparta at the time was considered an egalitarian society as men and women were often encouraged to compete as equals, especially in physical feats. But is that interpretation too convenient and simple? According to Broude, Spartan law at the time meant the girls were challenging the boys to a race (as evidenced by the lunging female on the left), which was in itself viewed as a mating ritual in that society. Accordingly, then, the painting can be viewed as a subtle reference to women taking the initiative in the most male-dominated ritual of all time. While this in and of itself may not be significant, Degas painted this work at a time of great social reform. Feminism was increasingly being discussed in France: the one often alluded to symbol is that of the First International Feminist Congress, which opened in Paris on July 25, 1878.
We are too limited in space to examine the range of brothel monotypes Degas painted, so we’ll instead focus on the remaining Degas painting (http://www.cheapoilpainting.com/collections/edgar-degas), his oil on canvas work Peasant Girls Bathing in the Sea at Dusk (c. 1876). As Broude notes, the power of Degas’s bathers lies in the fact that they are naked for no one but themselves, enjoying the ritual purely within a female context only. Previously, the majority of painters focused on nudes or women bathing predominately for a ritual or process that involved a man or servitude – for example, prostitutes bathing or women cleaning themselves after completing domestic labour and chores. The painting challenged the societal assumption that nude women only existed to serve and pleasure men.
What we have to make clear is that we’ve only provided a scratch in examining the social context in which Degas painted. Above all, Degas was a painter of contemporary time and issues. He was not a feminist, but rather, as he noted himself, a realist – he would argue his work was only realistically reflecting the popular moods of the day. In that regard it is perhaps best to consider Degas’s works as one of ambivalence and adjustment to the challenging notions of feminism in his time.