Until 1865, when Scene of War in the Middle Ages, was presented at the Salon, Degas wanted to be a history painter in the tradition of the "grand genre", which took events from history, the Bible or Greek and Roman mythology as subjects. This desire explains his study of many different poses, each a potential element to integrate into the final composition.
In Scene of War in the Middle Ages, , the event described by Degas remains uncertain: for a long time it was thought to be a transposition into the past of an allegorical scene – not a drop of blood is spilled – of the violence suffered by the women of New Orleans during the American Civil War.
Although Degas might well have known of these atrocities through his maternal family who lived there, his work is above all an illustration of the brutality and inhumanity of men towards women in times of war.
His last history painting, Scene of War in the Middle Ages, whose matt appearance pays tribute to the fresco painters of the 15th century, marks a turning point in Degas' work. The final work and the collection of preparatory drawings that accompanies it, reveal both the assimilation of many different sources of inspiration, including Goya, Delacroix and Puvis de Chavannnes, and a new focus on the body, that he subsequently developed in his contemporary studies of women bathing. In fact he picked up the same poses with the same unsparing observation but in a completely different context, and with the same unsparing observation. The transition towards Realism is particularly striking in his studies for Interior, also called The Rape, his most important genre painting, created at the end of the 1860s.
In the 1870s, Degas produced a series of brothel scenes in which his treatment of the prostitutes' bodies signalled a radical break with the idealised figures of traditional academic and classical nudes. Nevertheless, he did not make their physical appearance a straightforward record of reality. Rather, the image of these women came from a stereotype that was widespread in the collective imagination of the time. The prostitute was seen as a fleshy creature, whose misshapen body was the result of days spent in idleness, as opposed to the work-hardened physique of the peasant girl or factory worker. It is through his attention to certain bodily details that Degas gives veracity to this series, like the pornographic photographs of the time that showed a sexually explicit aspect of the female body.
The harshness of Degas' view is not without a certain irony, directed as much towards the girls as their clients who are caught in grotesque situations of domination where they are nevertheless at a disadvantage. At times the artist even seems to reveal a certain compassion, evoking the solitude of the prostitute in her alcove. These images remained virtually unknown during Degas' lifetime. He probably used them as a private exercise to guide his ideas on the representation of the nude body. The series consists exclusively of small monotypes, an impression on paper of a drawing previously made on a metal plate. It reveals Degas' virtuosity in framing and in conveying the atmosphere and interiors of the luxurious establishments he took as his subject.