Hygiene: a new body care

Hygiene: a new body care

  • The pedicure.

    DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

  • Woman at her toilet.

    LAURENT Ernest Joseph (1859 - 1929)

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Title: The pedicure.

Author : DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

Creation date : 1873

Date shown: 1873

Dimensions: Height 61 - Width 36

Technique and other indications: oil on canvas;

Storage place: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowskisite web

Picture reference: 01-018282 / RF1986

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

To close

Title: Woman at her toilet.

Author : LAURENT Ernest Joseph (1859 - 1929)

Creation date : 1908

Date shown: 1908

Dimensions: Height 64.5 - Width 54.5

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage place: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Picture reference: 93-000976-02 / INV20660

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Publication date: April 2011

Historical context

Hygiene practices and private space

During the XIXe century, hygiene practices are increasing in frequency, regularity and diversity. Women are the first to renew their approach to the "toilet", which is now associated with other "beauty treatments". With The pedicure, produced in 1873, Edgar Degas (1834-1917) shows this news. As a true "painter of modern life", he represents a rather original situation, informing us on this occasion about the fact that the "body treatments" performed by specialists are more and more widespread, and less and less reserved for wealthier women.

So many treatments that continue to take place very largely in the private space of the home, as indirectly confirmed by the web Woman at her toilet, executed by Ernest Laurent (1859-1929) in 1908.

Image Analysis

Body care

The pedicure shows a fairly new scene, and in any case very original, in pictorial history. In a small living room with green walls and red floors, a man dressed in black trims the toenails of a young woman. Degas chooses to fill the space almost completely (in addition to the figures, the sofa, the chest of drawers, the basin and the chair occupy the whole room), placing the bare foot in the center of his composition, the object of the pedicure's care and real " pictorial paroxysm: this part of the canvas stands out beautifully thanks to the work on pale tones (fabrics and flesh), which focuses attention on the operation in progress. Wrapped in a fabric similar to that covering the chair, the female figure who must be partially undressed (her dress rests to her right) abandons herself, eyes closed or half-closed, at this particular moment.

In Woman at her toilet, Ernest Laurent depicts a woman sitting shirtless in front of her dressing table, in what must be her bedroom. The utensils placed on the cabinet announce the mirror in which she looks at herself. Busy tying her hair, she seems to get out of bed or even out of the bath. The Impressionist influence, and more particularly that of Seurat, is evident; it gives the whole a somewhat melancholy, almost misty blur, as well as great softness and a certain diffuse eroticism.


Hygiene and beauty

With The pedicure, Edgar Degas explores his privileged theme: the beauty of the women of his time. As often, he chooses to place his subject in a situation that is both “contemporary” and intimate. Showing his model in a situation of abandonment (seeing the girl’s half-closed eyes), the painter suggests that the pedicure session is a time of rest and relaxation, imbued with a certain grace. Far from being an unsightly and embarrassing scene for the spectator who observes it indiscreetly, this body treatment is beautiful and precious, clean (the white of the sheets) and precise (the meticulous work of the specialist). Unlike the treatment to which it is the subject within the framework of its official promotion, hygiene thus conceived and represented no longer appears as the obscure complement of cold imposed health practices, and the necessary duty to protect oneself from unsightly diseases.

If the subject of Woman at her toilet is less "original" and less "new", we note the same intention in Ernest Laurent as in Edgar Degas. Playing wonderfully with the "blur" implied by his pictorial technique (more modern as for it), he takes up and renews a tradition which presents the feminine toilet as a moment of specular solitude, where the intimate and the secret (the confined place, hidden, abnormally offered to the gaze of spectators) are tinged with eroticism, mystery and beauty.

  • women
  • hygiene
  • impressionism
  • beauty


Alain CORBIN [dir.], History of the body, flight. II “From the Revolution to the Great War”, Paris, Le Seuil, coll. "The Historical Universe", 2005. Marina ROBBIANI, Degas, Paris, Celiv, 1988.Georges VIGARELLO, History of health practices. The healthy and the unhealthy since the Middle Ages, Paris, Le Seuil, coll. "Points Histoire", 1999.Georges VIGARELLO, History of beauty. The body and the art of beautification from the Renaissance to the present day, Paris, Le Seuil, re-ed. “Points”, 2004, reed.2007.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "Hygiene: a new body care"