making her toilet
Washing, drying, combing, lacing up, dressing, and putting on makeup and perfume: it took a nineteenth-century woman a lot of time to complete her toilet.
Printmakers saw this intimate ritual as a modern subject for their art.
Rather than the pastoral location traditionally used to show bathers, they chose the contemporary setting of the bathroom that was beginning to appear in Parisian apartments.
Here, in peace and seclusion, middle-class women could get ready to face the world.
Images of women at their toilet offered the largely male printmakers access to a world that was normally closed to them, in which nude or semi-naked women with their hair let down believed themselves to be unobserved.
This voyeuristic pleasure was heightened by the choice of angles — viewed from above or from behind — and by the uninhibited poses adopted by the women as they washed themselves.
Strategically positioned mirrors allowed the viewer to glimpse them from the front as well.
All the same, not every ‘toilet’ scene was explicitly erotic: printmakers also depicted the boudoir as a mental space with a distinct mood, where the woman could daydream undisturbed.
In this instance, washing and dressing represented a ‘silent ritual’ that encouraged the viewer to reflect and meditate.
Michelle Perrot, Philippe Ariès, Georges Duby, A History of Private Life IV. From the Fires of Revolution to the Great War, Cambridge 1990
Susan Hollis Clayson, ‘Looking within the Cell of Privacy’, in Peter Parshall et al., The Darker Side of Light. Arts of Privacy, 1850-1900, London 2009
Nadeije Laneyrie-Dagen, Georges Vigarello, La toilette. Naissance de l'intime, Paris 2015