Degas is known mainly as a painter, and sculpture was a very private aspect of his art. He only exhibited one sculpture during his lifetime. This work is unusual in that it was probably intended to be viewed from above. It is almost as if we are meant to spy on the woman as she bathes. Like Titian's 'Venus', the woman seems unaware of being observed. Little is known about Degas's reasons for creating this sculpture. While he was greatly influenced by Italian Renaissance art, he also sought to break away from traditional artistic subjects, such as ancient goddesses. He may have made this sculpture simply to help him with his painting and drawing.
This small bronze sculpture shows a young girl gently washing herself in a shallow basin. Degas started by modelling the figure in dark-red beeswax and used plaster to make the 'water'. He gave her a real sponge to hold and placed her in an actual lead basin. After Degas's death, this small mixed-media model was discovered in his studio and cast in bronze. The National Gallery of Scotland's version is one of twenty-two casts that were made. In the later years of his career, Degas repeatedly explored the theme of the female bather. 'The Tub' demands to be viewed from above, an original idea for the time. It was never intended for exhibition, but was a personal exploration of a self-absorbed figure in a private act of mundane intimacy.
Degas's celebrated paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture focus on aspects of Parisian modern life, including the racecourse and the ballet. His studies at the École des Beaux-Arts encouraged his interest in the human figure which remained central to his art. He travelled to Italy, where he had relatives, and where he continued to study the art of the past. The family portraits he painted there, however, also reflect his interest in capturing momentary appearances and unusual viewpoints. This he shared with the Impressionists, whom he met through Edouard Manet, on his return to Paris. Degas contributed to seven of the eight Impressionist group exhibitions.