Forty-two

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Combing the Hair (La Coiffure)

c1896 by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas
The National Gallery

Walking through the National Gallery one is immediately struck by La Coiffure; overtly red and imposing, it dominates the wall it sits on, drawing you to it and countering those either side. One is then further intrigued to discover that this is Degas, loudly diverting from his norm. The painting is looser, decidedly more modern in both colour and style than his usual Impressionism. Before we had jostling dancers about to go on stage (see postcard twenty-two); here we are taken one step back — a girl getting ready, having her hair brushed. This more intimate subject is gently caressed in the honest style with which Degas approaches it. Nothing is blurred; the figures’ faces are clear, their pale skin outlined with realism, cheeks flushed as they are expressive as people. We feel the concentration of the standing figure, and a tenderness, as she holds the girl’s hair carefully in her hand. The girl’s face is serene; her face turned upward as she languishes back, arms up, one hovering mid-air and the other on top of her head, holding the fiery red hair. Both figures’ eyes are closed, so absorbed are they in each of their roles, instilling an atmosphere of calm across the painting despite the intensity of the colour palette. Red and orange dominate the composition – the same red colouring the curtain, dress, hair, each cleverly and subtly differentiated only by shadow, tone or outline; an un-varying red tying the composition together with the warmth of intimacy.

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