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.