Degas and the Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism

Degas and the Laundress:
Women, Work, and Impressionism
Cleveland Museum of Art
October 8, 2023 - January 14, 2023

This is a very surprising (to me) new exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art. It's surprising for the very narrow topic of the exhibition and also for the quantity of pieces on that topic from big name artists such as Degas, Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec and Picasso.

It's titled Degas and the Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism and is in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Gallery from 10/08/2023 to 01/14/2024.

Degas and the Laundresses at Cleveland Museum of Art

Edgar Degas was a French Impressionist artist famous for his pastel drawings and oil paintings. His reputation was built on images of upper-middle-class entertainment in 19th century Paris - especially dancers and horse racing. Degas is especially identified with the subject of dance; more than half of his works depict dancers.

Wikipedia says, "At the beginning of his career, Degas wanted to be a history painter, a calling for which he was well prepared by his rigorous academic training and close study of classical Western art. In his early thirties he changed course, and by bringing the traditional methods of a history painter to bear on contemporary subject matter, he became a classical painter of modern life." Including, laundresses!

This exhibition is the first to explore Degas's representations of Parisian laundresses. These working-class women were a visible presence in the city, washing and ironing in shops open to the street or carrying heavy baskets of clothing. Their job was among the most difficult and poorly paid at the time, forcing some laundresses to supplement their income through sex work.

His Women Ironing (1884-86) gives the impression that you are looking into a shop window and seeing two women working. One is forcefully ironing while the other is yawning and holding a wine bottle. The workers were partially paid with alcohol to offset the works' unpleasantness.

Women Ironing

I like the realism of Laundresses Suffering from a Toothache (1870-72). One has a large bandage and the other is clasping her jaw.

Laundresses Suffering from a Toothache

The laundry industry fascinated Degas throughout his long career, beginning in the 1850s and continuing until his final decade of work. He created about 30 depictions of laundresses, a selection of which is united for the first time in this exhibition. The artworks from this series-revolutionary in their emphasis on women's work, the strenuousness of such labor, and social class-were featured in Degas's earliest and most significant exhibitions, where they were praised by critics as epitomizing modernity.

The exhibition includes paintings, drawings, and prints of the same subject by the artist's contemporaries-including Gustave Caillebotte, Berthe Morisot, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec-as well as painters that he influenced and was influenced by, from Honoré Daumier to Pablo Picasso. It also presents ephemera, such as posters, photographs, and books that reveal the widespread interest that Parisians of all social classes had in the topic of laundresses during the late 1800s.

As someone who casually throws a load into the washing machine the exhibition was a snapshot into a real world situation in 19th century Paris. You will see paintings of women ironing, carrying laundry and the like. It sounds mundane but it's really fascinating.

I liked the Paris Types: A Study of Two Women by Boldini. It shows a rich woman walking one way and a laundress struggling with her bundles headed the other way.

Paris Types: A Study of Two Women

If someone had suggested I go see paintings of Paris laundresses from over 100 years ago I would have said "no thanks." But having seen it I found it fascinating both for the subject matter and the caliber of the artists represented.

It will be open till mid-January and details can be found on the CMA website.

Now, I have to transfer the clothes to the dryer. And I feel a little guilty how easy it is to do.

Degas and the Laundresses

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