Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology

By Francis Frascina; Charles Harrison et al. | Go to book overview

41 The Laundress in Late
Nineteeth-Century French Culture:
Imagery, Ideology and Edgar Degas

Eunice Lipton

When art historians think of laundresses, Daumier and Degas come to mind. Depictions of these women were actually a commonplace in middle-class nineteenth-century French culture. Whether one thumbed through Le Charivari, visited the annual painting and sculpture Salons, frequented the theatre, read best-selling novels or coveted pornographic photographs, the laundress was everywhere. Most often she was a washerwoman — robust, hardworking, sometimes a drudge; frequently she was an ironer — pretty, street-elegant, flirtatious (Fig. N). [...]

In Femme à Paris ( 1894), a popular history of the time, Octave Uzanne wrote the following about ironers:

[They] ... are clean, coquettish, and often really pretty.... It cannot be said that their souls are as immaculate as the linen they iron. These girls have a shocking reputation for folly and grossness.... They haunt the outskirt of the city, are inveterate dancers, descend sometimes to the lowest forms of prostitution, and are also given to drink.

In addition, Uzanne noted, they quarrel ferociously, hurling a most 'remarkable vocabulary' at one another. Georges Montorgueil, a self-educated worker, journalist and popular writer, also commented on the laundresses' love of dancing. He suspected they were even abandoning laundering to become dancers at the neighbouring café-concerts.

The laundresses' moral code (or lack of it) motivated a great deal of Emile Zola's narrative in L'Assommoir ( 1887) as well. For all the attention Zola paid to the mundane details of working-class life and the ravages of alcoholism, it was the sexually titillating content of the novel which drew the critics' wrath and probably also attracted the enormous number of readers. [...]

Laundresses were not only popular in literature, but in painting too. Salon exhibits from 1865 to the end of the century showed at least one and sometimes as many as six paintings with titles such as La reine des blanchisseuses [The Queen of the Laundresses], Lavoir dans le parc de Grandbourg [Washing in the Grandbourg Park], Au Lavoir [At the Wash-house], Soubrette Repassant [Maid Ironing], and Blanchisseuses [Laundresses]. These depicted both washerwomen and ironers. [...] More often than not, real toil was altogether eschewed in the paintings. Among the images of ironers a depiction of hard work is rarely found; virtually all of the ironers directly or indirectly flirt with the spectator. [...]

____________________
Source: Art History vol. 3, no. 3, Sept. 1980, pp. 295-313. Footnotes and one illustration have been omitted.

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