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Italian Woman, c. 1856-1857

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During his first year in Italy, between October 1856 and July 1857, Degas treated the almost obligatory subject of Italian women in local costume in several informal watercolours and drawings. Such colourful studies from life had almost become part of the art student’s repertory; a generation of pensionnaires at the French Academy in the Villa Medici in Rome would complement their studies after Old Masters and the live model with sketches of the inhabitants of Rome and the surrounding countryside. Less than two years after his arrival in Italy, the twenty-four-year-old Degas would repudiate such works for their banality: “I am not mad about this well-known Italian picturesque,” he noted in July 1858; “whatever moves us no longer owes anything to this genre. It is a fashion that will always be with us.”

Initially, however, his responses to the “Italian picturesque” differed little from those of his more conventional contemporaries. Before reaching Rome, he had already recorded a woman in peasant costume in Sorrento, outside Naples, annotating his sketch with details of how she wore her hair, “braided into a crown around bandeaux.” Once in Rome, he joined the French students of the Villa Medici, where he attended life-drawing classes in the evening, in portraying peasant women from Trastevere and the surrounding countryside in their traditional dress.

In this delicate and rather tentative watercolour, Degas first drew the figure and her attributes in pencil; the underdrawing of her apron, the folds of her skirt, and the oval of her face can still be seen through the coloured washes. In applying colour, he simplified even more: her right foot, the outlines of which are clearly visible, is now lost in the grey shadow cast by the stone block. Similarly, the darker patches that describe the shadows on her right arm, neck, and chin are almost formulaic. As in the Sorrento study, Degas resolutely avoided pretty detail: the bearing of this peasant woman is taut and proud; her hands rest elegantly on the handle of her pitcher; and her spare features and simple dress enhance her dignity of comportment.

It was not in such sheets, however, that Degas affirmed his independence from academic convention; this emerged only in the paintings of old beggar women, dated to 1857, that break with both the picturesque and the sentimental. Degas’s watercolours remain remarkably close to those of his contemporaries, the sculptor Henri-Michel Chapu and the painters Jules-Elie Delaunay and Jacque-Francois Clere—prix de Rome winners in whose circles he moved at this time. In 1857 he recommended a striking male model to Chapu and travelled to Arrezo and Perugia in the company of Clere and Delaunay. It was only after his momentous introduction to Gustave Moreau, eight years his senior, in early 1858, that Degas assumed the latter’s disdain for such pensionnaires, “decent young fellows, who consider themselves artists, but are crassly ignorant.”

In addition to participating in the evening drawing classes at the Villa Medici, Degas may have joined students such as Chapu and Delaunay on sketching expeditions in the Campagna and Trastevere. Before Degas’s arrival in Rome, Chapu had drawn a very similar Italian woman in a letter to his parents dated June 19, 1856, with the annotation, ‘An Italian woman's costume as seen in the Campagna and in Rome at Trastevere.” A larger watercolour by Chapu shows a model not unlike that of Degas carrying a jug on her head. Finally, a watercolor by Delaunay in Nantes bears direct comparison with Degas’s Italian Woman, although the bulk of Delaunay’s figure and the heaviness of her hands serve to emphasize the instinctive refinement and delicacy in Degas’s approach to his sitter.

In his very popular travelogue Rome Contemporaine, published in 1861, Edmond About gave an account of the regular influx of peasants into Rome each Sunday, when they would congregate around the Farnese palace looking for work or buying and selling provisions. The peasant women, he wrote, “dressed in bodices, red aprons, and striped jackets, protect their tanned faces with headdresses of pure white linen. They are all worth painting, either for the beauty of their features or the simple elegance of their bearing”?


c. 1856-1857

Institution The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Medium Graphite and watercolor on laid paper
Dimensions 21 x 10.5 cm













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