For most people, the name Edgar Degas likely calls to mind images of the gracefully posed dancers who occupied the stage of Paris’s Opéra as seen in two longtime viewer favorites in the museum’s collection: the painting Frieze of Dancers and the luminous pastel Dancers. The works on view in the exhibition Degas and the Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism, at first glance, could not be more different. Instead of in tutus performing pliés, women appear in undershirts, pushing heavy irons across expanses of linen in dingy spaces. To Degas, however, these subjects were intertwined. Indeed, there are surprising similarities between the women who undertook work as dancers and as laundresses. Exploring the commonalities between Degas’s images of these women adds to our understanding of the artist’s practice and, more broadly, of the time in which he lived and worked.
Degas’s painting Women Ironing, an important loan from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, embodies the difficulties faced by women who worked in the laundry industry. The artist contrasted the strenuous labor of the woman at right, who leans into an iron that might have weighed as much as seven pounds, with the open-faced yawn of her companion, who clasps a bottle of red wine rather than the tools of her trade. Degas emphasized the differences between the two women through the use of gold and pink tones, suggesting the seemingly contradictory challenges of tedium and backbreaking labor that characterized their days.
Laundresses such as the pair depicted were often recent transplants to the growing metropolis of Paris from the rural French provinces. Because they often had few specialized skills or other employment options, they resorted to laundry—a vast industry in Degas’s time estimated by some to have occupied nearly 70,000 workers. Such work had few legal regulations, and laundresses put in long days for little pay. Some were young girls, and children occasionally accompanied their mothers to work due to the unavailability of childcare.
Young dancers were similarly often described in Degas’s time as coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and they also endured hours of rehearsal that far surpassed the acceptable workweek of today. These ballerinas performed at the opulent and lavishly decorated Palais Garnier, which was constructed as a hallmark of the French capital during the city’s dramatic redesign. It opened in 1875, at the height of Degas’s exploration of a new style of art making that depicted subjects taken from his own time. Like laundresses, whose work required extreme strength and dexterity in manipulating a heavy iron over sometimes-delicate fabric, dancers endured repetitive but precise motions and ongoing physical wear.
Although the movements of dragging an iron and pirouetting carry very different implications and connotations today, the professions that encompassed them were equally of interest to Degas due to his ongoing fascination with motion. He was inspired by the work of photographer Eadweard Muybridge, a British immigrant to the United States, who took a scientific approach to his medium in attempting to capture motion. Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion series—which Degas is known to have studied—featured the incremental movement of a nude woman washing and ironing clothes as one of various “types” in space.
One of Degas’s contemporaries described the artist as recording “the metamorphosis of women in the work environment,” a quote that suggests his deep interest in labor rather than one specific profession.1 Obsessed with developing and revising his own artworks, perhaps he was drawn to the demands of these women’s professions and their necessary absorption in highly skilled tasks. The words of influential contemporary novelist and critic Émile Zola—who described Degas’s laundress works as having a “great, marvelous truth”—perhaps best sum up their importance, capturing the new way in which the artist’s images of working-class women came to epitomize modernity.