The toilette between hygiene and intimacy

In the course of time, our rapport with water and hygiene has evolved with the maturation in human relationships. Starting in the 16th century, artists have documented this journey, yielding an interesting reading of the evolution of our mores.

Nico Zardo

These two ladies are immersed in water up to their waists, but they are not washing themselves... No gesture or instrument suggests this interpretation. They are Gabrielle d’Estrée, the favorite of Henry IV (1553- 1610), and her sister, the Duchess of Villars. The two women, wearing perfect make-up and well attired, are depicted while taking a bath in a tub clad in a sheet. The presence, in the background, of a wet nurse breast-feeding a newborn would induce one to interpret the scene as a form of purification following a birth. The two women do not seem at all perturbed by the artist’s presence, portraying them in a scene of family intimacy, but rather pleased that the painting is immortalizing, with their ritual and by exposing the infant, the “abnormal” - but by all acknowledged and accepted - relationship between courtesan and sovereign.

IN ANCIENT CHRISTIAN CULTURE, THE THEMES THAT PLACE WATER AND THE BODY IN RELATION WITH ONE ANOTHER refer to the symbolic values of purification, such as baptismal immersions in water or the washing of hands and feet. Charged with a negative connotation is, instead, the gesture by the prefect of Judea, Pilate, who shies away from the responsibility of judging Jesus by washing his hands before the crowd. The washing of travelers’ feet as a gesture of hospitality takes on great meaning after, in the Gospel of John, it is practiced by Christ himself to his apostles. These practices are evidently more rooted in purification rituals than in hygiene.

FROM THE RENAISSANCE ONWARDS, art works begin documenting the changes in mores that characterize the relationship between the individual - above all women - and their bodies. In the depictions of people’s personal hygiene care, gestures begin to assume a symbolic valence, like in the painting mentioned in the opening of the article. It is a process that will continue to develop in the centuries to come and that will witness a change in the places and modalities through which these practices were carried out. An exhibition held at the Marmottan Museum in Paris, curated by Nadeije Laneyrie-Dagen and Georges Vigarello, gives us the opportunity to delve more in-depth into this theme.

THE FIRST REPRESENTATIONS that approach a personal hygiene scene concern women with a perfect figure, delicate, milky-white skin, taking a bath often surrounded by mirrors, combs and creams.

In the tapestry entitled Le Bain dating back to about 1500, stored at the Cluny Museum in Paris, a feudal life scene shows a young bather surrounded by musicians and servants, taking a purifying bath, perhaps in preparation for her wedding night. Recurring motifs inspired by the Bible depict David and Bathsheba or Susanna surprised by the Elders. Here, the symbolism of the bathroom not only reveals the body, but it also evokes the care that in ancient Europe women of high-ranking society routinely dedicated to themselves. There are no gestures or instruments that recall an actual toilette, but the surrounding elements suggest the growing importance of personal care.

BETWEEN THE 16th AND THE 17th CENTURY, THE USE OF WATER AND HYGIENIC PRACTICES ARE VERY RARE. The decadence of the aqueducts built by the ancient Romans causes this raw material to become scarce and widespread belief that hot water, by opening pores, allows poisons to enter the body and thus favors contracting the plague, distances everyone from washing in favor of a “dry” hygiene. In a world where the external aspect is acquiring increasing importance, the ideal feminine beauty is associated with elaborate hairdos and ornaments, but also and more importantly, with attire that “hides” or “reveals” the body, yielding a new idea of intimacy. Combs, powders and creams prevail and – for those who can afford it – more or less frequent changes in undergarments. In the room where she prepares herself, the woman dresses in front of servants amicably conversing with relatives and visitors but without ever revealing anything about her nudity, last bulwark to privacy (see the work by Abraham Bosse, La Vue, femme à sa toilette, circa 1635, page 121).

IN THE COURSE OF THE 18th CENTURY the space for the toilette, term derived from the piece of fabric used to set personal care instruments on) changes deeply. The images documenting the mores of the time concern the noble classes and the high bourgeoisie. The use of water, supported by new scientific knowledge, gradually diffuses, favoring the adoption of the bidet for intimate parts and of basins for the feet and other parts of the body (as documented on page 110, from the work by Francoise Eisen, Jeune femme à sa toilette, 1742). Personal care is articulated in two distinct moments: the first is washing and the other is the previous practice of adapting one’s exterior image to social canons, a moment called in French “La grande toilette”(after La grande toilette by J.M Moreau, on page 110). Towards the end of the century, strangers will no longer be allowed to witness these operations that are becoming increasingly “private” and in 1818 Madame Genlis in her Dictionnaire critique et raisonné des etiquettes is surprised by the fact that in the past, women actually got dressed in the presence of men. Depictions by painters and illustrators will find it easy to become more “mischievous” and “impertinent”, creating a new painting genre that describes personal, intimate behaviors.

IN THE SECOND HALF OF THE 19TH CENTURY technology leads to greater availability of water. Homes begin to feature rooms specifically dedicated to personal hygiene, whose intimacy is often assured by locks. The first bathtubs and washbasins make their appearance. A painting by Alfred Stevens in 1867, La femme au bain ou La Baignoire, portraying a young woman holding a rose immersed in a metal tub, well represents the atmosphere of this revolution that merges hygiene, the pleasure of the body and the way we perceive ourselves. Practically all the painters of the time, from Lomont to Touluse Lautrec, from Morisot to Degas, offer us the secret image of young women “surprised” in the act of washing themselves. Not all can count on the comfort of equipped bathrooms – something reserved for the wealthier for still many years to come – and will have to continue using jugs and basins. The gap between those who can afford furnished bathrooms and those who cannot is punctually depicted in paintings dating to the second half of the 19th century.

And while “academics” continue treating personal toilette with romanticism, idealizing the scene, the vanguards of the “Im-pressionists” want to portray the modern world as is, without embellishments, underscoring what none of their predecessors had done. The bodies they depict are imperfect, the poses no longer aim to evoke emotions or to provoke; what they paint are “true” women “truly” washing themselves.

FROM 1900, THE BATHROOM BECOMES AN ESSENTIAL ROOM OF THE HOUSE and personal toilette a daily routine. The relationship with water, and more generally with personal care, changes substantially because now it is easy to keep clean. The toi-lette is no longer limited to hygiene rituals, lathering of the body, brushing of the hair. A hedonistic rapport is instilled, already clearly expressed with Degas in After the bath or Reclining nude. The evolution in hygiene mores, from the hollow vessel to the bathtub, is well documented by Pierre Bonnard who depicts his partner-model Marthe de Méligny in three situations: in 1903 while washing standing in a basin (Nu au tub), in 1919 in front of a washbasin holding a towel (Marthe à sa toilette), and in 1940 blissfully immersed in the bathtub (Nu dans la baignoire).

NOWADAYS WE ABANDON OURSELVES TO WATER for the psychological pleasure – as well as sheer physical pleasure – of solitude comforted by tepid fluid in a cozy, soft ambience. We revel in a reflexive intimacy that turns water and the bathroom into an occasion for a full retreat within ourselves that accompanies the triumph of a new kind of privacy. In the painting by Alain Jacquet, Gaby d’Estrées, (top), modern reinterpretation of the image we started from in the opening of this article, the looks and manner of the two women express their disapproval for the intrusion in a place and situation that nowadays we demand to experience alone. *

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