Combing one’s hair is a very personal affair that can be done only by close relationships. Edgar Degas, known for his ballerina paintings, often drew paintings of women combing hair. This painting is known as the boldest of its kind. The lady in the painting appears uncomfortable and in agony. Why did the artist paint such a picture?
Drawn against a red background, the painting depicts a household in 19th-century Paris. A maid wearing a pale pink blouse is combing her mistress’ hair. The woman in the painting, who appears to be pregnant, is pulled backwards by the strong combing and is pressing her hands to her scalp to relieve the pain. It seems as if she is saying “Ouch! It hurts! Take it easy.” It is pain that cannot be acknowledged unless one has long hair.
Degas know how women combed their hair and what they did when the combing did not go well. Though he remained single all his life, he carefully observed models and learned about the personal and secretive details of women. He spent several hours combing the models’ hair to understand how it felt. “He is very odd, he spends four hours of combing hair while working,” said a model that worked for Degas. Unlike other male artists at that time, Degas was not personally engaged with any model while working on nude paintings. He focused only on painting, because he despised women. He even enjoyed watching female models fighting off pain, which is why the women in his paintings appear to suffer from pain or fatigue, rather than sensual and attractive.
The painting also depicts inconvenience and agony of the pregnant woman. The diagonal line that stretches from the head and arm of the servant to the woman’s body depicts the flow of pain. If pain had a color, it would have been red like blood, which is probably why the painting is depicted in red. The painting, which remains unfinished, was purchased by Henri Matisse after Degas’ death.