Degas at CMA: Elevating the Laundress
Whether the word evokes dazzling white sheets billowing along a clothesline or a basket brimming with unmentionables, the uniquely human task is as universal as it is mundane. However it’s perceived, the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) is elevating the humble work of washing and ironing with Degas and the Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism.
“The exhibition looks at a series of paintings, works on paper, prints, and pastels that Edgar Degas created over his entire life, … all of which depicted Parisian laundresses,” said CMA Curator of Prints and Drawing Britany Salsbury.
In addition to major works and sketches from Degas, other artists represented in the show include Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, and a host of others. The exhibition features nearly 100 works assembled from more than 30 European and American collections.
“The extraordinary works assembled for this exhibition reveal a new and exciting aspect of an otherwise well-known art historical movement,” noted William Griswold, director and president of the CMA. “The Cleveland Museum of Art’s exceptional holdings of 19th-century French art situate us to present such an inventive exhibition, and we look forward to sharing works of impressive quality— from Degas’s private sketchbooks to some of his most celebrated canvases alongside those by his colleagues—that have never before been seen together.”
When visitors do take in this collective effort, they’ll discover a compact exhibition featuring art that is refreshingly accessible while also being at turns complex, mystifying, and playful.
A sampling: Woman Ironing, Francois Bonvin, 1858, evokes the dignity of work while the laundress’s heavy skirt and a small vase of flowers convey a quiet elegance. That said, the astute viewer—particularly one who cooks with a cast iron skillet—can’t help but wonder how thick the calluses on the woman’s hand must have been, earned from guiding that hot cast iron handle over yards of linen day in and day out. The same viewer might wax protective over The Little Laundress, Pierre Bonnard, 1896, as she makes her way down a cobblestone street toting a massive laundry basket in one hand and an umbrella in the other. Laundry Drying on the Banks of the Seine, Gustave Caillebotte, circa 1892, brims with fresh air and sunlight; while two playful trade cards from the 19th century (artists unknown, part of the delightful ephemera in the show) evoke paper dolls depicting women smiling demurely, one from over her wash bin and the other as she looks up from her ironing.
Lastly, consider four Studies of Nude and Seminude Women, Pierre Eléonor, 1861. Per the wall text, “The popular perception of laundresses as sexually available became the subject of numerous images that emphasized such innuendo in the form of light pornography. These stereoscopic photographs were meant to be placed in a special viewer that made the scenes appear three- dimensionally—present women washing linens and (perhaps most inexplicably) wielding an iron while partially nude. In each, the woman’s blouse artfully drapes from her shoulder as if by accident, exposing all or part of her breast and playing on male fantasies of happening upon such a scene when passing a laundry shop.”
Make no mistake: cheesecake images were thriving more than a century and a half ago without Hugh Hefner or wifi, but considering the ubiquity of the laundress in Paris at that time, it’s not hard to imagine why they were sexualized.
Per Salsbury, laundry was an enormous industry in Paris that employed tens of thousands of workers, many of whom were women. “[The laundresses] were people anyone living in 19th century Paris would have seen on a daily basis walking around the city and working in shop fronts that were open to the street,” she said.
Courtesy of this exhibition, they are now open to all of us as well.
Degas and the Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism, opens Sunday, October 8, and runs through January 14, 2024 in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Gallery on the museum’s lower level. Tickets range from $8 to $15, free for members.