Impressionist artist Edgar Degas is best known today for his images of entertainments for the upper-middle class in 19th-century Paris, especially the graceful movements of ballet dancers and the dynamic energy of horse racing. Throughout his entire career, however, Degas remained fascinated with an entirely different subject taken from the grittier side of modern urban life: the labor of Parisian laundresses. Although difficult to imagine at a time when laundry is mostly a mechanized chore, the industry and its workers had a major, visible presence in Degas’s time and interested him from his earliest years. On view beginning October 8, 2023, the CMA’s groundbreaking exhibition Degas and the Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism brings this series of paintings, prints, and drawings together for the first time. The works on view illuminate a major, previously unexamined aspect of this influential artist’s work and shed new light on the marginalized labor carried out by tens of thousands of women during his time.
Degas created his first sketches of laundresses as a young man in his 20s and continued to portray them through the final decade of his artistic practice. These working-class women were responsible for washing and ironing the clothing and linens of most Parisians and had a visible presence in the city, doing their work in shops open to the street or carrying heavy baskets of clothing through its neighborhoods. Their job was among the most difficult and dangerous at the time, exposing them to infectious diseases, chemicals, and strenuous and repetitive movement. The unpredictability and poor payment of the work forced some workers to supplement their incomes through prostitution to support their families.
Following the publication of novelist Émile Zola’s sensationally popular L’Assommoir (roughly translating to “dive bar”), which centered on the downfall of a laundress who attempts to elevate her social position, images of laundresses became a constant presence in both popular culture—such as plays, musical performances, and illustrated magazines—and in vanguard art exhibitions, including the Impressionists’ pioneering group shows. The numerous depictions of these women by Degas and his contemporaries—from Berthe Morisot to Pierre-Auguste Renoir—invite new ways of considering this major art-historical movement and its emphasis on scenes of leisure by drawing attention to the labor that made this free time possible.
Degas’s images of laundresses are revolutionary in their focus on these women’s labor rather than any presentation of them as flirtatious or sexually available, as was often the case in Paris during the late 1800s. Because of the hot, humid conditions of their shops, workers often wore loose chemises at a time when proper, conservative dress was equated with morality for women. Many artists of the time played on this reputation by idealizing the setting where laundresses worked or by drawing attention to their exposed skin. Perpetually interested in movement, Degas instead emphasized the effort of pressing and lifting a heavy iron and the steady motion required to avoid scorching fabric—gestures that one of Degas’s contemporaries testified that he had studied closely from observation. In Degas’s earliest painting on the subject (opposite), one of his favorite models, Emma Dobigny, gazes directly at the viewer with an expression suggesting boredom or exhaustion and with her arms in outline, evoking the repetitive motion of her work. Among Degas’s most finished and striking compositions on the subject, this canvas will travel to the United States for the first time in the context of Cleveland’s exhibition.
In addition to works from Degas’s laundress series, the upcoming exhibition features paintings, drawings, and prints by his contemporaries—from realist depictions of everyday life by Honoré Daumier to Pablo Picasso’s proto-Cubist portrayal of marginalized workers—highlighting the interest among artists of Degas’s time in the subject. Major loans from nearly 40 national and international collections tell the story of the difficult work that these women undertook and contextualize Degas’s fascination. Some artists, such as François Bonvin, shared with Degas an interest in depicting the act of work. Bonvin presented ironing as a private, contemplative activity and Degas likely saw his depiction of the subject in his studio (above right). Others featured these women as an integral part of the modern cityscape. Gustave Caillebotte, Camille Pissarro, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Félix Vallotton reflected the ubiquitous presence of laundresses and their labor in and around Paris, aligning with these artists’ interest in depicting contemporary urban life.
Although most artists depicted laundresses as examples of a popular type, others presented individuals they knew personally. A group of such works in the exhibition counters the generalizations that circulated around these women. Renoir, for example, depicted Nini Lopez, a young female worker from Montmartre—the working-class neighborhood where his studio was located—as recognizable and confident in a painting from around 1877 (above left).
Further connecting Degas’s series to the lives and experiences of the actual women who did such work, the exhibition features a broad selection of ephemera—printed materials from daily life used by virtually all Parisians. Included is a series of photographic postcards popular at the time that show actual women standing before the shops where they spent so much of their time. Such works reveal the lives of women whose experiences and challenges have otherwise largely been lost to history. By illuminating another side of the past, the exhibition invites us to reconsider the present and the connections that can be made between undervalued labor in Degas’s era and in our own time.