‘Degas and the Laundress’ at Cleveland Museum of Art spotlights working women
With only a glance at Edgar Degas' paintings, the work of laundresses might seem like a pleasant chore. But in late 19th century Paris, it was a dirty, dangerous and poorly paid job.
The Cleveland Museum of Art’s latest exhibit, “Degas and the Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism,” pairs depictions of laundresses by Edgar Degas and other artists, providing a look at what life was like for these working-class women.
“The work that they did exposed them to respiratory illnesses, contagious diseases like cholera,” said Britany Salsbury, exhibit curator. “The shops often weren't well ventilated. The humidity made mold grow.”
To dull the hardships of the work, some of the laundresses’ employers would give them watered-down wine to drink. This shows up in a Degas painting of two women ironing, with one firmly pressing the clothing and another grasping a bottle.
“Some of them would drink, you know, steadily throughout the day to sort of offset the unpleasantness of the work,” Salsbury said. “Addiction issues were prevalent throughout the industry.”
The trade had a darker side too, with some laundresses supplementing low pay with prostitution. It may come as a surprise to some, but this is one of several life similarities between the laundresses and the ballet dancers Degas also painted.
“The women who were working as dancers often came from the same place, sort of socioeconomically as the women who worked as laundresses,” she said.
While Salsbury started organizing the exhibit before the pandemic and more recent labor movements, there are plenty of opportunities to relate the work to modern issues. For instance, in a pair of paintings by Honoré Daumier, laundresses are seen taking their children with them as they work.
“I hope that people will think about some of those connections to contemporary life,” Salsbury said.
While laundresses would have been seen as other in society, Salsbury said Degas appears to have appreciated their craft.
“Degas seemed to have seen some kind of affinity between the skill required to do that kind of work and the skill that an artist needs to do his work,” she said.
“Degas and the Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism” is on view through Jan. 14.