Femme se Coiffant

  Femme se Coiffant (woman combing her hair)

Extract from my journal 2nd July 2010

I’m sitting in the Degas room, contemplating a painting: Femme se coiffant. The semi-naked figure is combing very long dark red hair that must reach her hips. It’s texture is slightly rough, a little like the tail of a horse and her intent in restoring smoothness to her tresses hums through every line of the painting. You can feel the concentration even though you can’t see her face. There’s a powerful feeling as if in smoothing her hair she is smoothing her feelings, as if her emotions are being brought to order as she tames her hair. I imagine her as a fiery, temper-filled person, brimming with passion and vitality and a zest for life. It’s hard to remember that these luscious thick tresses only a few years from this will have been slowly to grey, to thin and become pale and lifeless, and that voluptuous body will have perhaps run to fat as middle-age ensues, or shrunken as old age withers her flesh. And harder still to remember that she’s a century dead now, the red hair and her strong bones turned to dust and lost. Only the painting remains of that moment in an unknown woman’s life. Her name, I do not know, but after the catacombs I am reminded that my flesh too is mortal and only my work will remain after my body is gone.

Light gleams on the hair or perhaps she has combed macassar oil into it to give it shine. She holds the mass of her hair in one hand and draws the comb down the length of it. You can feel the pressure of the comb until finally in a long slow movement it gives and the comb pulls through.”

I was entirely overwhelmed by the Impressionist gallery at the Musée D’Orsay,  which was my next stopping point after the catacombs. Coming hard on the heels of my musings on mortality, this picture(it’s actually done with pastels) caught my eye for a number of reasons. My own hair is almost this long and similar texture and I had a sense of fellowship with the woman combing it. I also work very occasionally as a life model and one thing that has always struck me doing that is that it is the work of the artist that is remembered and praised, not the courage of the model. Often the model remains unknown; many never even draw my face.

But this girl and her artist are long dead and yet, something of their essence remains to those who wish to touch and experience it. I hope to do the same one day.

next- waterlilies by Monet: not what I expected.  

7 thoughts on “Femme se Coiffant

  1. I like the way you describe the impact of the painting. Thanks for sharing it.
    I’ve been thinking what a very curious importance our hair might have, though it doesn’t seem to be a vitally important element of our body.
    When I was a schoolgirl, boys were sometimes punished by having their hair shaved. I really abhorred that and considered it a most cruel and savage invasion into one’s personal boundaries. In many cultures around the world the forceful cutting of someone’s hair is regarded as a special form of humiliation.
    Often we change our hairstyles when depressed or frustrated to invite a new beginning as if it would bring about the changes in our lives that we crave for. Our hair seems to be related to the way we feel because it wouldn’t stay the way we like it to when we are sick or in a bad mood. Indeed it reflects our inner state. Well, most of the time 🙂


    • I agree about hair. Especially for women I think it has special importance.
      According to Native American lore, one connects to the powers of the universe via the filaments that attach to your hair, energy lines that extend from our hair into the cosmos. So cutting the hair was also about cutting the connection to the cosmos.
      I change my hairstyle frequently but never have it cut. I can do about twenty different styles with my hair as it is.
      good thoughts; I shall ponder some more…


  2. Hi, Viv. A lovely picture and interesting commentary. You see so much. I noticed, however, the strong resemblance of the woman who is combing her hair to someone who is playing a cello. See how she holds the bunched hair to one side, grasped by her left hand with her fingers aligned as if pressing the strings. Her other hand holds the comb at right angles to the strands of hair like a short bow. Her long tresses are cradled by her petticoats between parted knees in the way that the instrument is normally positioned. This makes me think that the picture is not only maybe praising the loveliness and youthful perfection of this woman, the ephemeral nature of which you drew upon, but also alludes to the vibrancy of her sexuality – maybe also the difficulties of expressing that passion over a hundred years ago.


    • I think you may well be right, Jessica. I’m not musical at all so the resemblence simply would not have occurred to me. I can see it now you have pointed it out.
      a big thank you for that; adding something I’d never have seen and expounding it so beautifully too!


  3. I agree with Jessica. There’s an instrument called the Sitar…

    (This is a Raja Ravi Verma painting…)
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the painting – they made the woman in the painting come alive.



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