The Art of Beauty – Ladies of La Toilette

It was many, many years ago. My Mom was preparing for a night out with my father. Great, devoted parents that they were, they still found time to actually have a social life. (It was the swingin’ 70s after all). I, her young, curious daughter, kept her company and hung out in her bedroom as she dressed and put on her makeup. A pretty, sparkly perfume bottle on my Mom’s dresser caught my eye. I looked closer, and that’s when I read the horrifying, repellent words, “eau de toilette”. Eeeeeewwwww!! Toilette??? Sounds like “toilet”!! Eeeewwww. Mommy’s perfume comes from the toilet!!!!! Yucky!

Ok, maybe I was a silly kid. But the word “toilette” (which sounds much nicer spoken than “toilet”) really doesn’t signify anything crude or foul. Quite the contrary. It’s not a bathroom or a plumbing fixture. It’s a common, daily ritual, one that many women – especially we girly, feminine types – take delightful, diligent pleasure in.

So what is “toilette”, besides just another word of French origin that found it’s way into the English lexicon? Well, here it is:

toilette |twäˈlet|
noun [in sing. ] dated
the process of washing oneself, dressing, and attending to one’s appearance : “Emily got up to begin her morning toilette.”
ORIGIN late 17th cent.: French

Simple enough. Of course, some of us women take our beauty regimen quite seriously. Why? Well vanity is the obvious explanation. Another could be that some of us work in a profession where our face and body are looked at and studied intensely for hours on end, and therefore put great effort into maintaining our appearance. Excellent excuse! Um, I mean reason 😉 Or maybe some of us are beauty junkies, and require professional intervention to pull us out of the aisles of Sephora stores and Whole Foods Body section. I, for example, have the number of a “sponsor” stored in my cell phone. I call her with desperate pleas for help, during a relapse, like when I’m testing mascaras and powders and creams and exfoliators and overdosing on fragrance samples and falling into a delirious cosmetic stupor. “I’m at the Clinique counter in Bloomingdale’s!! Code Red!” But it’s Ok. The paramedics come, pound on my chest and give me oxygen until I come to. No problem.

The word “toilette” appears in a lot of painting titles. I’ve come across it countless times when browsing art images. Women, and nude women, in the act of their toilette has clearly been the subject of much fascination for male artists. Hmmm, I wonder why? There’s likely a “voyeurism” element at work. Peering in on a woman’s private time as she cleans and grooms herself. Also, the perception that lovely young women have nothing more substantial to do with their time than beautify themselves might come into play. I don’t mean that in some angry feminist way, honestly. Just offering an analysis based on the different cultural attitudes and views of women from decades past.

The truth is, I love these paintings, especially this one from British painter Arthur Hacker. This is Female Nude at her Toilet, from 1918:

hacker-femalenudetoilet

Degas was obsessed with women in varying states of bathing, dressing, and hairbrushing. He LOVED hairbrushing. Many men have told me that they find watching a woman brush her long hair a sexy and appealing sight, even a turn-on.

degas_toilette_pastel

Traditional toilette takes place at a dressing table, or “vanity”. These days you’d probably have to go to an antique furniture shop to find a good old-fashioned ladies’ dressing table. Being the modern girl that I am, I use the mirror in my bathroom. Not the most charming setting for a work of art, I’m sorry to say.

But Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot took it a step further and brought his rather bewitching model subject outdoors for her toilette. In the woods, under the trees. Why not? Works for me. This is Corot’s La Toilette from 1859:

corot-toilette

Many of these toilette paintings feature not only a woman attending to her grooming needs, but hired help assisting her. Wow, now that’s what I call pampering! Check out this toilette scene from Frederic Bazille, year 1870, titled La Toilette. A beautiful painting, but way too much servitude for my taste. Not my style.

bazille_toilette

I think that the art history significance of these toilette paintings could be that they represent the beginning of “everyday life” as a subject for art. For many years, great art addressed almost exclusively religious and mythological themes. And warfare too. I don’t think it was until the 19th century that artists sought to capture ordinary people engaged in routine, ordinary acts. Women during toilette fits the bill nicely.

From 1883, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Wait. What’s the title? Oh that’s right. La Toilette:

puvis-toilette

Geez, is everything about hairbrushing? Seems that way. Hairbrushing, staring off into space, looking bored and disconnected. But this next one communicates something different from the previous ones, not just in style, but in the countenance of the subject. She is less passive than the others, and something is going on with her. The scene is almost confrontational. Looks like me and my toilette! I can relate.

From the German Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, this is – what else?- La Toilette, from 1912:

ernst-l-kirchner-la-toilette

12 thoughts on “The Art of Beauty – Ladies of La Toilette

  1. ray says:

    Hi Claudia
    Interesting article.Nice artwork. Thinking about it , may be that was one of the few respectable places where nudity of women could be viewed? Are there any contemporary painters doing this theme?
    Dosent all that brushing break the hair?
    Ray

  2. Fred says:

    I had the same experience as a kid! I think my mom’s bottle actually had the literal translation “toilet water”. Of course I thought it was hilarious. Since then I’ve learned that high end perfumes contain ingredients like whale vomit (ambergris) and the anal secretions of a mongoose-like animal (civet). Now toilet water is starting to sound not so bad!

    The Degas hair-brushing pictue is great. As a figurative artist, I find hair a fascinating challenge. It can be confusingly amorphous or of such dominant shape that it defines the silhouette of the person. You usually have to have a very loose hand drawing hair, but it’s hard to really capture the look of it. Sculptors have a terrible time with hair. And hair comes in such diverse forms and stylings. Certain kinds of hair are really hard to draw, including in my experience tight twisted dreads and big diffuse beards. Degas really gets the feel of it in the example above. He keeps it relaxed but gives it weight and thickness, makes it the center of the piece and keeps everything else in the picture even looser and sketchier than the hair.

    Nice post overall!

    Fred

  3. dougfromcanada says:

    Claudia, you write such intriguing articles, shows me you have fun with art and finding out more of it’s many facets. I’ve always loved Hackers portrait, it seems like she has just dropped the mirror down by her side to look directly at us the viewer and to say to us that “yes I am stunningly beautiful”. Kirchners work is interesting too, lovely backview of a very feminine body contrasted with as you say an almost confrontational frontal mirror image, very good work of art.
    dougfromcanada

  4. Terrell says:

    Very interesting post, Claudia. I learned something new. I had the whole toilet water experience as a kid as well. You rock. Which is why you should also jump over to my blog. I had to make mention of why you rock. I think I’m going to feature models on each post…or at least periodically.

  5. artmodel says:

    Ray, thanks.

    You make a good point about the toilette as an acceptable setting for female nudity. May have been a factor, sure.

    As far as contemporary artists using this theme, I really don’t know. I don’t see it around anywhere. It might be considered dated and passe.

    Claudia

  6. artmodel says:

    Fred,

    You’re right! Toilet water doesn’t sound so bad compared to those other disgusting substances you mentioned. I’m quite a fragrance addict, so maybe I should find out exactly what’s in the stuff I’m putting on my skin!

    You made a nice discussion of the challenges in drawing hair. As you well know, my hair has been the cause of frustration for many an artist. Long, thick, and curly – it’s an entity 🙂 But Degas sure got it right. I agree, it’s great how he made the hair itself the main focal point of his composition.

    Thanks for commenting.

    Claudia

  7. artmodel says:

    dougfromcanada,

    Thanks for the compliment, friend! I’m really glad you enjoy the blog so much and acknowledge my interests and passions. I learn a lot from writing my posts.

    The Hacker is gorgeous, and your hypothetical storyline is great! Yes, the model does project a self-assured attitude. Like she knows she’s beautiful. I hate those women 😆
    But I really dig the Kirchner.

    Claudia

  8. artmodel says:

    Terrell,

    The childhood “toilet water trauma” seems to be quite commonplace! We might all have to seek therapy for it.

    I read your blog post and all I can say is WOW. You are so kind and generous. I really appreciate your review of Museworthy. You also rock. Thank you, thank you.

    And I think featuring models in your posts periodically is an excellent idea. But then again, I’m a little biased 🙂

    Thanks again, Terrell.

    Claudia

  9. Ken Januski says:

    Hi Claudia,

    A fascinating post and very well illustrated. Who would have thought that ‘eau de toilette’ could have led you, and your readers,off on such a trail? It’s a bit like combining Proust, and something stirring his memory, with jazz, riffing on a theme, then coupling them with some very good illustrations. A treat for all!

    I do think that the 19th century was really the century of allowing, maybe even celebrating, the mundane in art. My memory is foggy on this but I think that Baudelaire wrote an essay espousing just this. Perhaps that has something to do with the toilette as a common subject matter. Is it still done today in art? Not that I know of, though I’m not a good judge of contemporary art.

    But is there something that takes its place today, at least in terms of being a very common visual event? I hate to suggest something like ipods or cellphones as the latter day equivalent but they may be. I’m not a frequent user of either but if you look around you it’s one of the most common sights you see. So maybe today we need paintings of ‘sons de cell’ (excuse my madeup French, with I’m just guessing at). The problem is: it’s not much of a sight. Someone, even perhaps the most attractive woman you’ve ever seen, walking down the street, head cocked to one side, speaking into space. It’s probably as common as the toilette was in the 19th century, just not quite as visually appealing….

  10. artmodel says:

    Ken,

    Thank you so much! I’m happy that you enjoyed this post. It was fun to write. Indeed, me and some of my readers are re-living disturbing images of our mommies dousing themselves in “toilet water”. The psychological scars are painful 😆

    I seem to vaguely recall something about a Baudelaire essay on this topic. Because of you, I’m off on a Google Search.

    From my experience as an art model, I have not encountered any artists taking on the toilette subject. It’s probably viewed as outdated and archaic. You know how artists think: they always want to be current and relevant – hence, your iPod/cell phone idea! Now I’ve never been asked to pose with my cell phone (thank god), but I’d bet there are artists using that theme. And I agree with you, that is just isn’t as visually appealing as ladies in the toilette 😉

    So nice to hear from you, Ken. Thanks!

    Claudia

  11. Merrel says:

    Late to the game here!

    But I’d like to share Kuroda Seiki’s “Morning Toliette” (1893) Read more here about this work.

    Seiki was a real trail blazer when it came to Western Oil Painting techniques in Japan. And “Morning Toilette”, though award winning, was viewed by the public as an affront to the social and cultural ways of Japan.

    The Great Nude posted more about his works in October

  12. artmodel says:

    Merrel,

    Nope, never too late. Not here on Museworthy.

    Those links are great! Seiki’s “Morning Toilette” is excellent, along with all the nudes. Thanks so much for sharing. Always good to hear from you, Merrel.

    Claudia

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