Renoir and Degas: who depicts Bathers better?


This blog will discuss the genre of the nude during the Fin-de-siècle (turn of the century) by comparing the works of Renoir and Degas, focussing on their Bather series. It will make use of N. Brood’s reading,  Degas’s ‘misogyny’ (1977) as well as T. Garb’s reading, Renoir and the natural women (1985). The blog will begin by explaining what the key terms; Fin-de-siècle is as well as the context of the nude within the Fin-de-siècle. The blog will then continue to discuss the important concepts such as reshaping nature through culture, voyeurism, castration complex and fetishism.


Fin-de-siècle is french for end of the century, similar to ‘turn of the century’, refers to the end of the 19th Century (more or less 1870 -1910). It is also known as the period of degeneration, boredom, cynicism, pessimism and decadence. There was also a reaction to materialism, hope for new beginnings through a revolt against rationalism, positivism, the bourgeois, liberal democracy. The Fin-de-siècle like any other culture had a counter culture and that was to reject social order.

The Nude (in the Fin-de-siècle)
The nude was considered an acceptable representation of nakedness, in art before the 20th century. It was considered the reiteration of beauty and a base on which to transform nature into a culture. Male nudes were typically gods and warriors, while female nudes were venues and odalisques. There was aways an element of perfection, godly status, goodness, beauty and immortal life.
Figure 1: Francois Boucher, The Toilete of Venus. 1751. Oil on Canvas.
However, during the Fin-de-siècle artists wanted to depict the female nude for what they were; actual reality. The nude became an expression of erotisissim, ascetic enjoyment and pornography. Without surprise, the new ‘artistic nude’ was not highly approved of.
Figure 2: Gustav Courbet, L’Origine du Monde. 1866. Oil on canvas.


Reshaping nature through culture

‘The very act of painting is male, culture is male, and that which is represented exists in the order of nature so that ‘women’, Renoir’s most frequent subject is seen to operate on the physical and ‘primitive’ level of culture.’ (Garb, 1985, p4). In this quote about Renoir’s choice of depicting women, one can see that the men are seen as cultured while women are not, meaning that men have the power to reshape the way nature/women are seen in culture. Renoir’s nudes reinforce a patriarchal society, by depicting them as an extension of nature. All his nudes are at one with nature, blend into the background of nature are at total peace and in bliss with nature. As seen in Figure 3, the painting depicts naked women, bathing in a forest. The colours of their skin is an extension of the colours used to depict nature, therefore they are an extension of nature. The fact that the are bathing also implies that they are only capable of very primitive activities.

Figure 3: Pierre-Augustine Renoir, Bathers in the Forest, 1897. Oil on canvas.

Renoir also likes depicting his female figures doing household chores and looking after pets and children, reaffirming their place in society.

Renoir’s depiction of women as a timeless, mythic version of women often leads to the assumption of praise (Garb, 1985. p5) but this idea must be oppressed as it shows the lack of engagement into the reality of a females life. Many other thinkers, writers and artists at the time were documenting on the fact that women were denied the same rights as men. Renoir is a misogynist as he did not want women to gain equality in society. Therefore he places them in roles that are submissive to men and reinforces the myth of women. Renoir also believed, along with many other theorists of the time, that if women altered the particle system, they would alter nature too.

In controst, Degas depicted his female nudes as slaves to the male viewer. His dancers and bathers express the pain and effort it takes to look effortless. This is seen through the expressions of hardship, the distorted bodies (see figure 4) and the ‘furious opens, displayed as bodily distortion and disarticulation’ ( Bernheimer, 2014 p159). Degas stripped away societal norms and revealed true identity, which was not well received by society.

Figure 4: Edgar Degas, Bather stretched out on the Floor, 1886-1888. Pastel.



Voyerism is  expressing a sexual interest or looking and spying on people, that are not aware of the voyeur, engaged in intimate behaviour.

In the case of Renoir Bathing series of paintings the paintings have a distinct feeling of voyeurism. This is seen in the females obliviousness to the male eye and their ease at playing amongst themselves (figure 3).

Castration complex

Castration complex is the fear of being emasculated.

According to the psychoanalytic account,the male voyeur is trying to escape anxiety by obsessively reenacting an original trauma, his imagined perception of female castration, from a situation of mastery and control (Bernheimer, 2014). The male voyeur sees the absence of the phallic and concludes that the female is considered the other in his eyes. He is then relieved with the thought that he as not been castrated, like the female is.


In Renoir’s bather paintings one can distinctly see that the women is submissive to the man, emphasising that he has mastery over her (Garb, 1985 p8). This is seen in the way that the women are depicted naked, as a submission to the viewer, bodies are often twisted to expose breasts or thighs, expressing a harmful playfulness. Renoir also expresses how he prefers his women not to be able to read but only to take care of the children, implying that he has a fear of women becoming an equal to him. He then argues that women would not become elevated, through an education, but denatured and debased.  His ideas of women as household essentials is reinforced by his paintings of women doing household chores with ease. He also mentions how the best exercise for a women, is to be scrubbing floors, once again emphasising his fear of a women being an equal to a man.

In Degas’ bather series one can see the castration fear play part, as the females are depicted alone, extraordinary self-sufficiency, separateness, and sensuous privacy of the women is depicted. The male viewer is not invited to watch and feels almost like a trespasser. The women are rendered as physical beings in their own right rather than as projected, complicit objects of masculine desire (Brenheimber). The women are not only averted from the male gaze but are also completely unaware of it. The images invite empathy and the contemplation of narcissism.

Degas also emphasised on expressing women as individuals, not as subjects that were meant to emphasise charm, grace or prettiness.

Figure 5: Edgar Degas, The Tub, Pastel on cardboard, 1886



Fetishisation is to make a fetish of something – excessive devotion or obsession for something/someone

Renoir’s fetish is clearly the womanly body.


In conclusion this blog has explored the theme of the nude within the Fin-de-siecle between the artists; Renoir and Degas, focusing on their bather series. In N. Brood’s reading,  Degas’s ‘misogyny’ (1977), one learns that——– .  While in T. Garb’s reading, Renoir and the natural women (1985) we can understand the depiction that Renoir made of women, by pronouncing them to be a part and extension of nature and less than men. Renoir does this by depicting women as primitive and beautiful. In Garb’s reading one can see that Renoir also had a fear of castration, for he feared that women would be an equal to him and he therefore would no longer find them attractive. In Bernheimer’s reading Degas’ Brothels (2014) with reference to Degas’ pastels of women bathing, the reader can understand that Degas saw women to be slaves of the male viewer, Degas depicted the pain and reality of an individual woman through his paintings.


Bernheimer, C. 2014. Degas’s Brothels: Voyeurism and Ideology. University of California Press. pp158-186


Broude, N. 1977. Degas’s ‘misogyny’. The Art Bulletin 59(1), March:95-107.

Garb, T. 1985. Renoir and the natural women. The Art Oxford Art Journal 8(2):3-15.

Leeks, W. 1986. Ingres other-wise. The Oxford Art Journal 9(1):29-37.

Figure 1: Bc.Edu, 2010. Francis Boucher The Toilette of Venus. [Online] Available at [Accessed on 1 June 2016].

Figure 2: Huffington Post, 2015. Facebook In Legal Trouble After Censoring That 19th Century Painting (NSFW). [Online] Available at: [Accessed on 1 June 2016].

Figure 3: Lenin Imports, 2015. Pierre-Augustine Renoir. [Online] Available at: [Accessed on 1 June 2016].

Figure 4: Painting and Frame, 2010. Edgar Degas After the Bath or Reclining Nude. [Online] Available at: [Accessed on 5 June 2016].

Figure 5: Study Blue, 2013. Impressionism/post-impression. [Online] Available at: [Accessed on 5 June 2016].