For Degas, whose oeuvre mostly dates from the 1860s to around 1900, Women Combing Their Hair from the mid-1870s is a fairly early work and the earliest by the artist in The Phillips Collection. It shows one of the first manifestations of a subject that would occupy him throughout his career, culminating in dramatic late pastels. The awkward poses women assume in the privacy of their boudoir whether bathing or grooming themselves engaged Degas endlessly and became a perennial subject central to his work.
In this painting executed in oil on paper, Degas shows three views of a young woman combing her hair. She stands, her long tresses hanging down the right side of her body; she is seated on a chair with her hair thrown over her head, and she sits on the ground, combing it over to the left side of her head. Barefoot and dressed in a chemise, she could be moving about her dressing room, but Degas completed the image by giving it a landscape setting, presumably a pure invention and one that unites the figures in time and space. The three positions suggest the model’s movement and the artist’s movement around her. In so doing, the work goes to the heart of an approach that would absorb the artist for the rest of his life, the challenge of conveying movement.
Duncan Phillips appreciated Degas’ fusion of influences, including that of Japanese prints which often show women absorbed in private pursuits. Phillips’ purchase of this work in 1940 inaugurated the decade in which he made his most important purchases of the artist’s work.