Think Degas was a misogynist? Take another look.

This pastel by Edgar Degas in the collection of the Hill-Stead Museum, a little-known museum in Farmington, Conn., is one of my favorite works in any American collection. At the most basic level, it is just a wonder to me that one human would respond to another by making something like this.

What is “this”? “The Tub,” as it is called, is a lot of colored marks on a big, 27½-inch-square piece of blue-gray paper. The marks have been applied in layers, often with hatched, colored lines superimposed on hatched lines in other colors laid down in a contrary direction. Because pastel marks are on the dry side — more pigment than medium — the jewel-like colors also have a special texture that is intensely tactile, like woven fabric.

Degas’s chosen vantage point places us in an unusual position, both close to and a little above the model. The perspective tips the space toward the viewer, allowing us to see more of the red, yellow, blue and green of the floor. Those high-keyed colors bring out similar hues in the model’s hair and the light reflecting off her skin, reinforcing the unity of the picture, the intimacy of the scene.

The model’s body, meanwhile, assumes an ungainly, almost bizarre shape — all lumps and weird angles. Her posture was completely at odds with prevailing ideas of decorum in art in the mid-1880s, yet wholly credible and familiar. (We bathe, dry ourselves, dress and undress every day. This is what we look like.)

Degas is sometimes described as a misogynist — usually, I’ve noticed, by male critics. It always surprises me because most women I know, including artists and art historians, love his pictures. They recognize themselves in them — that is part of it. And of course, they admire all the art in them. (Degas, there is no getting around it, was a stupendous artist.)

For the critics who find his work misogynistic, the sticking point is usually Degas’s admission that he wanted to show “the human animal preoccupied with itself, like a cat licking itself.” In a similar vein, he told the painter Pierre-Georges Jeanniot: “I have perhaps too often considered woman as an animal.”

In both cases, Degas was alluding to his images of women in the bathroom — of which “The Tub” is one of the finest. As always, context matters. After the first quote, he went on to say he wanted to get away from poses that “take an audience for granted.” The women in those images, he said, were “honest” and “concerned with nothing except their physical occupation.”

After the second quote, he said: “Women can never forgive me; they hate me, they feel that I am disarming them. I show them without their coquetry, in the state of animals cleaning themselves.”

All of Degas’s ironic, morose and unsentimental intelligence is on display in these sentences. It would be naive to take them too literally; even more naive to treat them as confession or regret. But it seems strange — almost perverse — that art critics would consider Degas’s attempt to revolutionize the tradition of the female nude — by drawing it away from the imaginative poverty of saccharine, salon-ready, smooth-skinned soft porn and back into the realm of reality — as evidence of misogyny.

We are animals. When you think of all the other forms we might have taken, it is astounding how much we share with cows, cats, dogs, pigs and wombats: not only two eyes and a nose, but also a mouth, teeth, tongues, ears, hearts, lungs, hormones, brains, warm blood, skin, genitals, nipples, backbones and bowels.

Also: intelligence, vision, sensation, emotion, instincts.

Also: mortality.

Humans have long used derogatory language and philosophical assertion to try to establish our fundamental separateness from other animals. And, yes, men have used such language to try to establish the inferiority of women. But in our hearts we know the entire effort is a lie — a lie that leads to heartbreak and environmental disaster, and licenses no end of cruelty. It is good news when art reminds us of all that we share with other animals, pointless to pretend otherwise.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Junne Alcantara.

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