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Beach comber

Degas did not share his fellow Impressionists' love of painting out of doors. So what was his purpose here? Ghislaine Kenyon explains

In the National Gallery's Room 46, a small painting by the Impressionist painter Edgar Degas struggles to compete for our attention with two more famous and much larger scale works by the same artist: the bold and glowing pastel "Woman Drying Herself" and the striking figure of Helene Rouart gazing out from her portrait. But when you spend time with "Young Girl being combed by her Maid", there is something about this quiet little beach scene with its unusual composition and wealth of period detail that makes it as arresting as its neighbours, and for teachers and students, perhaps an even richer resource for learning.

A young girl, her maid and their belongings are spread out on a sandy beach. After a swim (her bathing suit is stretched out to dry) the girl is now fully clothed, She snuggles on the sand while her long thick hair is combed out by her maid. In the background are two other figure groups: on the left a heavily wrapped family exit the picture in a line, and to their right, a man and a woman chat, a dog keeping them at respectable distance. Boats and bathers of various sizes are clustered on and around the horizon.

Beach scenes were commonly painted by Degas' contemporaries such as Monet and Boudin, but this one is different. Degas was a member of the Impressionist group of painters: he shared subjects with them, exhibited with them and promoted them. But he did not share their preference for painting out of doors in order to capture the fleeting effects of light. On the contrary, he once recommended that painters should be kept indoors by a special police force "...to stop them painting landscapes from nature".

It's very likely that the young girl and her maid were posed in Degas' studio; it's true that the background was probably based on pastel drawings made during a visit to the Normandy coast in 1869 - the gusty brushstrokes of smoke and sails do give you the feeling that he might just have been there - but those central figures and the curious still-life of beach paraphernalia suggest that Degas was doing something quite other than painting quickly on the beach.

The figures of the young girl and her maid have an intensity which seems to detach them from their surroundings: their poses are so well observed and clearly executed that we have an almost physical experience of what it would be like to be them: children usually detest hair-combing sessions, but this girl's body language suggests that she is enjoying the activity; the maid's ample figure, however, is anything but comfortable: her legs are stuck out in front of her, so that she must awkwardly bend and twist her spine to reach her young charge's hair. This contrasts with the practised sureness of her combing movement, which in turn reminds us of the artist's own confident gestures with the brush.

Looking more closely we become aware of further contrasts between the two figures: the maid's tanned and raptly concentrated face, and the girl's pale skin and blank expression.

The skin tones hint at their social differences - the girl must be kept out of the sun, not for health reasons, as she might be today, but to distinguish her from the class of person who is obliged to be outside to work.

The precise expressions, or lack of them, give a sense of the maid as a practical person, very much of the world and in it, while the young girl is somehow abstracted from it.

There is also a play between the opposites of 2-D and 3-D: the figures and the open parasol are rounded and solid, but the bathing suit and folded parasol are strangely flat and therefore draw attention to themselves and to the whole left-hand side of the composition. Equally strange but not a factual impossibility, is the smoke from the two steamships on either side of the horizon, which blows in two different directions.

Lesson ideas

"Young Girl being combed by her Maid" provides a good focus for discussion at all key stages and in many areas of the curriculum - at Foundation and KS1 it may simply be a matter of children finding words to describe what they can see; the beach is a familiar environment, experienced actually or vicariously through television, but new vocabulary might include horizon, parasol and steamship. It would also link well with history: the difference between past and present, and could usefully be compared with an image of a beach today.

Older children might speculate on what the different figures are thinking or saying: the image could be photocopied with speech or thought bubbles. This could precede an extended writing activity, where the scene could form part of a story or the basis for factual description. For examples of how schools and colleges have used this picture as a stimulus for writing you could look at the National Gallery's Tell Us a Picture website, www.nationalgallery.org.uk educationtellus03_400.htm.

The KS2 history unit on the Victorians would also be enriched by the use of this image as a source of evidence for clothes and hairstyles, as well as the fact that beaches were, by this period, leisure destinations as a consequence of railway building.

Use it in the art lesson to support various units in the QCA scheme of work, such as Figures in Action, or, less obviously, Objects and their Meanings.

For older students it is also an object lesson in how artists refer to the work of other artists (either consciously or unconsciously). In this case Degas had looked at another painting also in the National Gallery: "Samson and Delilah" by the Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna. He used it as a source for the poses of the figures in the way that Mantegna himself had looked back to antique reliefs.

Students could be encouraged to use Degas' painting in the same way, perhaps keeping the setting but altering the activity.

Ghislaine Kenyon is deputy head of educationhead of schools

Edgar Degas 1834-1917

Paris-born Edgar Hilaire-Germaine Degas is acknowledged as the master of drawing the human figure in motion. He worked in many mediums, but preferred pastels, and is best known for his paintings, drawings, and bronzes of ballerinas and race horses.

The details

"Young Girl being combed by her Maid" is on show in Room 46 in the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN).

It could be included in free themed gallery talks for school groups. To book please telephone National Gallery Education on 020 7747 2424.

"Young Girl being combed by her Maid" is available as a postcard or slide from the National Gallery shops or by mail order. Tel: 020 7281 9080

For more information or images of this work and others with the National Gallery visit the website www.nationalgallery.org.uk or try www.artcyclopedia.com where you can also find beach scenes by Monet and Boudin

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