Degas is best known as a leading Impressionist painter. For him making sculpture was mainly a private activity. He used it to think through artistic problems of shape and posture. By the 1890s Degas suffered from very poor eyesight and hand-modelling sculpture let him work more quickly.
Uniquely in this piece Degas explores the animated interaction between two figures. The masseuse massages the thigh of a naked woman, who holds her buttock in relief or pain. Degas modelled 'The Masseuse' at about the same time he painted the Walker’s 'Woman Ironing', which is shown nearby. Both focus on the weary labour and muscular strength of working women.
Degas was fascinated with the effect of light playing on naked flesh and visualising it in an unidealised way. This also inspired the modern British painter, Lucian Freud (1922-2011), who once owned this sculpture.