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Artwork in Focus: Femme se peignant (Woman combing her hair) by Edgar Degas
[ Essay )
One of our most significant and exciting acquisitions in recent years, Edgar Degas’ Femme se peignant (Woman combing her hair) was once owned by Gladys Deacon, an American socialite who led an extraordinary life.
Edgar Degas’ Femme se peignant (Woman combing her hair), (c.1887-90) is a remarkable example of the Impressionist artist’s intimate drawings of the female nude. Seated with her legs crossed, the model precariously balances a scarlet slipper whilst brushing her hair. This glimpsed moment is one of a series of charcoal drawings that Degas executed on large sheets of tracing paper, which are in major museums around the world including the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Fogg Museum at Harvard and the Museum of Fine Art in Houston and now, in Chichester.
The drawing’s display at Pallant House Gallery is the first time it has gone on public display, having remained in private hands since it was acquired directly from the artist by the celebrated French dealer Ambrose Vollard, who published it alongside several other large charcoal works in a celebratory volume of Degas’ work in 1914.
It was subsequently purchased by the glamorous and unconventional American socialite Gladys Deacon, a prolific female collector during the 1910s and 1920s who moved in artistic and aristocratic circles and had friendships with artists and writers including Rodin and Proust.
Deacon was famous for her beauty and is said to have captivated figures including Marcel Proust, Wilhelm Crown Prince of Prussia, RC Trevelyan, Anatole France and Hermann von Keyserling. In her art collection were other works by Degas, several sculptures by Rodin, and an oil painting by Toulouse-Lautrec. She also sat for Giovanni Boldini in 1901 following a commission by her future husband, the 9th Duke of Marlborough.
In 1921, Deacon became the Duchess of Marlborough, marrying the 9th Duke after his divorce from Consuelo Vanderbilt and taking residence at Blenheim Palace, from which she was later evicted. After her death in 1977 at a mental health institution in Northampton the drawing was purchased at auction by the late owner Stephen Brod, a successful physicist who had escaped Czechoslovakia at the outbreak of the Second World War. Latterly, Pallant House Gallery was identified by the recipient of Brod’s estate, Claudia Rosencrantz, for the allocation of the work in lieu of Inheritance Tax through the AiL scheme.
Although the Gallery has several works by Post- Impressionist artists in the collection, it is the first major Impressionist work to be acquired. Degas was an important influence on the development of Modern British art, in particular through the artist Walter Sickert whom he met and befriended in Paris and Dieppe in the 1880s. In terms of the figurative tradition in Modern British art, Degas’ work has relevance to later artists such as Lucian Freud, RB Kitaj and Frank Auerbach.
The article was first published in Pallant House Gallery Magazine No 39 (2016).
Join us Thursday 22 January for an online talk about some of the other etraordinary stories of collectors and artists in Living with Modern Masters.
This work is currently on display in Degas to Picasso: International Modern Masters.