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Degas and the Laundress: Thinking about the (In)visibility of Women’s Labor in Impressionism

Jillian Kruse, Curatorial Intern in Prints and Drawings and PhD Candidate at Case Western Reserve University
October 6, 2023
The Laundresses, 1879–80. Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917).  2020.223 

For many, the word Impressionism conjures images of light-filled landscapes, ballerinas, or fashionably dressed women at the opera, in a garden or park, or at the seaside. Yet, as the Cleveland Museum of Art’s exhibition Degas and the Laundress reveals, women’s labor was an equally important subject in Impressionism (fig. 1). Despite the ubiquity of laundresses in 19th-century French art and culture, these women and depictions of women’s labor more broadly have often been relegated to the margins in histories of the movement.

But once you see a laundress, you cannot unsee her, and once you begin to look for women’s labor in Impressionist art, you find it everywhere. This labor is not always obvious or understood as such to viewers today and it often goes unacknowledged, but it is there if you know where to look — especially in prints and drawings throughout the CMA’s collection.

Similarly, although works on paper formed a large portion of French artistic output in this period, prints and drawings tend to receive less attention than their painted counterparts. This comes in part from their traditional status in the hierarchy of arts, which placed painting above other forms of art making, but also from the nature of the works themselves. Paper is particularly sensitive to light as well as to fluctuations of heat and humidity; as such, it is especially vulnerable to damage. Works on paper are thus only shown for short periods to preserve their condition. Only a fraction of the museum’s rich collection of works on paper can be on view at any one time.

The CMA’s prints and drawings holdings contain a wealth of material to uncover when thinking about the invisible and unacknowledged labor of women in the 1800s. One example is James McNeill Whistler’s The Old Rag Woman, which the artist made during a visit to France (fig. 2). Whistler, although not strictly an Impressionist, was a contemporary of Degas’s and shared his interest in the work and lives of those marginalized by upper middle-class society. In this etching, Whistler depicts an older woman dozing in an interior. Her evident exhaustion is likely a result of her work: sorting the piles of rags surrounding her.

Figure 2. Twelve Etchings from Nature (The French Set): The Old Rag Woman, No. 10, 1858. James McNeill Whistler (American, 1834–1903). Etching; plate: 20.8 x 14.8 cm; sheet: 27.3 x 20.8 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph King, 1922.438

Marginalized by society, ragpickers, the name by which this type of worker was known, sorted through the city’s refuse, collecting and selling rags that were then used to make paper. Like laundresses, ragpickers were a common sight on the streets of Paris where they earned a meager living and, because of the nature of their work, were associated with uncleanliness and poverty. Ragpickers also became a popular subject for artists looking to depict the grim reality of everyday life in the late 1800s. The product of their labor, rags, was quite literally used to make the very paper on which artists such as Whistler created the prints and drawings we find in museum collections today.

Much as the paper for Whistler’s prints depended on the labor of ragpickers, the fashionable dresses of the upper middle-class women typically associated with images of Impressionism relied on the often invisible labor of working women. In Mary Cassatt’s The Fitting, this relationship comes to the fore (fig. 3). Kneeling with her back to the viewer, a seamstress makes alterations to the dress of the woman standing in front of her. The darker color of her own clothing would have shown less visible wear and needed laundering less often than the delicate white clothing of the standing figure. The seamstress’s garment was a pragmatic rather than an elegant one and indicates her working-class status. Meanwhile, her hand, just visible above her right knee, holds the hem of the other woman’s dress and subtly draws attention to her precise and delicate work.

Figure 3. The Fitting, 1890–91. Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926). Drypoint and aquatint; platemark: 37.4 x 25.7 cm; sheet: 43.5 x 30 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Bequest of Lucia McCurdy McBride, 1972.240

The careful and skilled labor of this seamstress mirrors that of Degas’s laundresses, who, though not always visible in images of Impressionist leisure, each contributed to their making through the clothing they fashioned and laundered. It is also perhaps not a coincidence that some of Cassatt’s own labor for this print would have been made using a needle, though one specifically intended for scratching lines into a copper printing plate.

In the inscription at the lower right, Cassatt further acknowledges both her own labor and that of a M. Leroy who helped her to carefully hand print each of her complexly prepared and inked plates. Cassatt’s recognition of Leroy’s role is unusual and speaks to the importance she placed on his aid and expertise. In highlighting multiple forms of labor (sewing, art making, and printing) and multiple laborers (the seamstress, the artist, and the printer) typically invisible in Impressionist art, Cassatt’s print reveals the significance of this labor within her own work as well as within images more traditionally associated with upper middle-class leisure and fashion.

Although artists like Degas, Whistler, and Cassatt foregrounded women’s labor, the work of the models who posed for them and the women who performed the domestic tasks that allowed them to focus on their art is rarely acknowledged. Henri Guérard’s An African Woman, after a painting by his wife, Eva Gonzalès, an artist herself, helps to make the model’s presence visible (fig. 4). The print depicts a woman of African descent, possibly from the French Caribbean, wearing a head scarf and a hoop earring and looking off into the distance. Recent scholarship has revealed her importance in Impressionist art and her name: Laure. A well-known artist’s model, Laure posed for two paintings by Gonzalès’s mentor Edouard Manet, including his infamous Olympia, now considered a landmark of modern art.

Figure 4. An African Woman, after Eva Gonzalès, c. 1888. Henri Charles Guérard (French, 1846–1897), after Eva Gonzalès (French, 1849–1883). Zinc etching and aquatint; platemark: 26.8 x 28.6 cm; sheet: 46.7 x 34.3 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Bernard Derroitte in honor of Margaret and Peter Dobbins, 2020.241

Manet (on whose painting Gonzalès’s own image was based) and other artists relied on models to create their work, but this labor is rarely acknowledged. Models such as Laure held difficult poses for hours on end while artists like Manet and Degas, both plagued by indecision, relentlessly reworked their paintings. Like laundresses and other working women, models were often suspected of sex work; indeed, some did use it to supplement their meager earnings. Yet like Laure, these women’s names as well as their unacknowledged hardships and labor, especially in the case of women of color, are lost to history while the struggles and triumphs of the artists who painted them are loudly celebrated.

Similarly, though perhaps unintentionally, Camille Pissarro’s The Mender reveals the heavy burden of female domestic labor hidden behind narratives of male artistic genius (fig. 5). In this drawing, a woman sits with eyes downcast, firmly focused on her work: repairing a piece of clothing. The figure might represent the artist’s wife, Julie Pissarro, whose labor and perseverance sustained their large family through years of financial difficulty. While he painted and sketched, Julie mended her family’s clothing, washed their laundry with the help of a laundress, and kept rabbits as well as a vegetable garden to feed her family. She is often portrayed by art historians as lacking in patience and understanding for her husband’s artistic vision.

Figure 5. The Mender, c. 1881. Camille Pissarro (French, 1830–1903). Pen and black ink and gray wash over graphite heightened with white gouache; sheet: 15.1 x 10.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of the Print Club of Cleveland, 1927.298

Her labor, however, enabled him to devote himself to artistic experimentation and to stubbornly pursue creative freedom rather than making more obviously marketable works of art. Julie’s labor recalls that of countless women, in the 1800s and now, who bear much of the burden and mental workload accompanying the management of a household, efforts that often go unacknowledged. Her work and that of the other women discussed here often hover on the edge of or beyond visibility.

Finding evidence of women at work in Impressionism thus sometimes requires us to read artworks against the grain and to challenge ourselves to think about the ways in which women’s labor might be present, even when it is not strictly visible.