Degas’ Combing the Hair (Le Coiffure): a glimpse behind the curtain – The Guardian

Modern life

Edgar Degas was a chronicler of the metropolis, from its public hurly burly to what went on behind closed doors. Ballet dancers, racehorses and prostitutes rank among his subjects. This painting represents one of his later passions: human hair.

Bad hair day

Fast paint in an uncomfortable red and striking black lines articulate this unsettling scene: a young woman with her locks pulled by a comb, wielded by another woman. The curtain suggests theatre, a drama that we fleetingly glimpse. Those tresses seem almost bestial, heavy and cumbersome. To touch it is a physical intrusion.

Mystery girl

Degas takes his viewers into hidden worlds, into bathrooms, boudoirs or backstage at the ballet. However, his approach is far from tell-all. “There must always be some mystery left,” he said. Here we are left to guess at the relationship: is this a maid, mother or madam?

Hot head

Hair was especially hot erotic property in the 19th century and, apparently, Degas combed his models’ hair for hours. Once he made a written request to watch Bizet’s wife Genevieve let her hair down.

Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell, National Gallery, WC2, until 7 May