The Cleveland Museum of Art’s Degas and The Laundress Explores Rarely Seen Impressionist Themes of Women’s Labor
A woman’s work is never done, especially if you’re a Parisian laundress. This old saying, which refers to the housework for which women are often responsible, in addition to paid work, describes a full-time reality for many working-class women in the late 1800s. Degas and The Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism is the first exhibition to explore representations of Parisian laundresses by Impressionist artist Edgar Degas and his contemporaries—Picasso, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard, and more—united for the first time, only in Cleveland. The artworks from this series—revolutionary in their emphasis on women’s work, the strenuousness of such labor, and social class—were featured in Degas’ earliest and most significant exhibitions, where they were praised by critics as epitomizing modernity.
To preview the exhibition, we interviewed Britany Salsbury, curator of prints and drawings at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Jacqueline Bon: This is the first time the artwork depicting Parisian laundresses, which Degas revisited throughout his life, has been united and exhibited. What caused you to become interested in this body of work?
Britany Salsbury: My interest in Degas’ images of Parisian laundresses has changed—alongside everything else in the world—since I began this project in 2019. I became fascinated after reading an article (the only one about Degas’ laundress series!) by art historian Eunice Lipton when I was in grad school. I was so used to a specific version of Impressionism that was all about bourgeois leisure. I’ve always been interested in labor and its history because of my own background, having grown up in a union family, so I loved that there was a whole other side of late nineteenth-century art focused on that.
My exhibition research during the pandemic made me think about the topic differently yet again. The work that Parisian laundresses did was essential and marginalized, and I thought of them as that type of labor became a topic of conversation more and more in our own time. I also became a first-time parent in 2020 and was always struck by how the more things change, the less they really do: I was trying to balance my own work researching paintings like Honoré Daumier’s The Laundress—about a woman bringing her child to work with her—while taking care of my daughter during stretches without reliable childcare. Even when the type of work itself couldn’t be more different, there’s an essentialness to women’s labor that we see in the paintings and are still talking about today.
Bon: Is it true that the exhibition contains a rare painting that was stolen from a Parisian museum for nearly forty years?
Salsbury: Yes! Degas’ Laundress with a Toothache—one of his most unusual paintings from the series—was stolen in 1973 from the Musée d’art moderne André Malraux in Le Havre. The thief unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a ransom for its return (including numerous mysterious phone calls to the local newspaper), and the painting disappeared completely until 2010, when it appeared for sale at the auction house Sotheby’s. With the assistance of American authorities, it was finally returned to Le Havre, almost forty years later.
Bon: What was day-to-day life like for a Parisian laundress in the late nineteenth century?
Salsbury: Daily life for Parisian laundresses was grueling. Many worked up to eighteen-hour days and might sleep in the shops where they worked in order to avoid the lengthy commute back to suburban neighborhoods where they lived. They were exposed to dangerous chemicals that caused skin and respiratory problems, as well as illnesses and infectious diseases from the items they cleaned. They were employed as workers were needed, so they had no job security or economic stability. Some—like many working-class women at the time—supported themselves and their families through sex work. Unsurprisingly, laundresses began to organize soon after trade unions became legal in France in 1884.
Bon: Are there parallels that can be made between Degas’ laundresses and his famous ballet dancers?
Salsbury: Although at first glance, they couldn’t be more different, these women were actually pretty similar. Both often came from economically disadvantaged families and needed to work at a time when most women didn’t. For that reason, they were both considered to be sexually available and often looked down upon by upper-middle class Parisians.
Bon: This exhibition includes artworks by Degas’ contemporaries. Which artists are most notable, and what do you think inspired them to join Degas in painting laundresses?
Salsbury: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec stands out for the number of times he depicted laundresses—two examples out of many are in the show. I also personally was struck by Auguste Renoir’s depictions of laundresses. Renoir has plenty of detractors today. But early in his career, his work was quite different: he was fascinated by the novel L’Assommoir by Émile Zola, which was about the downfall of a laundress. Renoir made several works related to the book and even contributed illustrations to an early edition. L’Assommoir was probably the biggest inspiration for artists in Degas’ time to depict laundresses; it presented the lives of working-class people in a new and incredibly realistic way. It was sensationally popular when it was published. Even by today’s standards, it’s a great (even if not very upbeat) read.
Bon: What connections can be made between this exhibition and labor in the modern day?
Salsbury: I think that comparing Degas’ time to today brings attention to an exhausting, repetitive job—the kind of which still often remains invisible today. It also allows us to consider the impact of organized labor. I’ve been reminded of this while researching laundresses as more and more industries have unionized over the past couple of years. Some of the most notable changes to laundresses’ working conditions—including everything from a weekly day of rest to heated workplaces—took place after they organized and worked within the labor movement in France.
Degas and The Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism is on view until January 14. Tickets are available at CMA.org/Degas.
CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF ART
11150 East Boulevard
Cleveland, Ohio 44106
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