How Degas Used a Single Colour to Bring Delicate Sensations to Life
Perhaps the first thing that strikes viewers about this painting is its colour. Tangerine orange, deepening to marmalade, copper red and autumn browns, framed and softened by areas of chalky white. This swathe of blended colour blankets the entire canvas, merging background and foreground into one glowing, almost humming interplay of shapes.
The chromatic tones turn Combing the Hair into an audacious work of art, especially for the time. It was painted by Edgar Degas around 1896, and shows a young woman having her hair combed by an attendant in a maid’s uniform. We can suppose that it’s morning since the young mistress is not yet dressed. There is also a suggestion that she is pregnant.
When you stand before it, the paint has a dry, dusted quality, applied broadly and without fine details. Outlines are painted in bands of black paint mixed with charcoal — notice for instance the far side of the attendant’s face and the strong black line used to delineate her profile.
The effect of the prominent orange colour is to act as a ground upon which shadows and highlights operate forcefully. The arms and face of the seated woman, and especially the blouse of the maid, come to life when set against the orange-red surface. Neither area, foreground or background, is flat or still; there is constant movement, a sort of twitching energy, a dancing shimmer of luminosity that works back and forth across the picture space.
Degas was in his mature years by the time he made this oil painting. At this point in his life, his preferred medium was pastel, and he used oils only occasionally. It’s notable then that this painting is so large at nearly a metre-and-a-half across — an emphatic decision for a method he used only intermittently.
Many critics have noted how Degas’ models are invariably facing away from the artist, apparently unaware they are being watched. It is true of this painting too: the seated woman’s eyes are closed, whilst her attendant’s eyes are lowered in…