Men in paintings get all the best roles: armoured champions over dragons and sea-monsters, explorers and adventurers going where no man has been before, and so on. Outside of genre paintings, roles permitted of ‘genteel’ ladies were strictly limited. One of them which recurs throughout painting, even back to classical times, is sewing and needlework.
In three articles I am going to explore a small selection of paintings which show women not (dangerously!) reading books, but sewing. The first two cover the long history of sewing by hand, and the third the more recent history of sewing machines. My aim is to trace the role and significance of sewing in paintings, and how we might read this activity.
In the oldest classical and post-classical paintings, sewing was one of a group of fibrecrafts which were acceptable for women of all ranks. Others include spinning, weaving, knitting, and crochet. Indeed, compilations of art resources such as Wikimedia Commons confound them, including knitting, crochet, embroidery, tapestry, and other fibrecraft within the category of sewing. Although I show a few paintings of embroidery and tapestry, and one of knitting, I largely constrain my view to fibrecraft performed using a sewing needle.
Diego Velázquez’s The Needlewoman from about 1640-49 is a good example: it shows one woman engaged in the act of sewing. As she is looking down at her work, its role as a portrait is limited. Much of what it has to say is about what she is doing with her hands, her skill, and peaceful concentration.
Many portraits are different: a woman poses with her needlework beside her, a common variation which was socially acceptable even for royalty. Such portraits were popular and numerous, and I consider them no further here.
It may not have been until well into the nineteenth century that needlework came to assume an important role in another major painting. Certainly it was in that century that sewing and needlework became the main thread of so many.
In Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s early pre-Raphaelite painting of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848–9), the young Mary is embroidering with her mother, Saint Anne, while her father, Saint Joachim, prunes a vine – by that time, another thoroughly socially-acceptable activity for a gentleman. Rosetti uses Mary’s embroidery to introduce the symbolic colour red, signifying the Passion to come, and this slow, painstaking activity as a symbol of the demands of motherhood.
A few years later, the contrasting style of Jozef Israëls shows The Seamstress (1850-88) as if a product of the Golden Age. A young Dutchwoman works with her needle and thread in the light of an unseen window at the left. In the background to the right, there are some Delft tiles on the wall, and there’s a single tulip in a glass vase at the left. The scene is timeless, the woman solitary.
One of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s earliest significant paintings, Lise Sewing from 1866, shows his partner Lise Tréhot, then just eighteen. They had only met the previous year, and a ‘wedding’ ring is prominent on the ring finger of her left hand. This adds to her domestication, making her appear a married woman undertaking her wifely tasks, in spite of her obvious youth.
Giovanni Boldini had only been in Paris for three years when he painted Peaceful Days (The Music Lesson) (1875) in his early ‘pre-swish’ style. A young woman reclines on a settee and sews, as a younger boy sits on a vividly-decorated carpet studying an epée, with a cello behind him. She is wrapped in a flame-red kimono-like gown, and appears engrossed in her work, which might actually be lace-making rather than sewing. Both figures appear to be whiling away idle time, rather than engaging in any form of lesson.
The women of wealthy families appear to have spent much of their time engaged in activities intended to pass the time. Gustave Caillebotte’s Portraits in the Countryside (1876) shows, from left to right, the artist’s cousin Marie, his aunt, a family friend Madame Hue, and the artist’s mother.
Three of the four are engaged in needlework, although it is not clear precisely what. Caillebotte’s mother is the exception: sitting in the distance, she is reading a book. Not only are these women sewing their lives away, waiting for the next event on their social calendar, but they sit apart, and concentrate on their work, without talking to one another. Their sewing provides them with a small world of their own, whose only hurt could be the infrequent prick of a needle.
Thomas Eakins painted just a couple of dozen watercolours during his career. Seventy Years Ago, from 1877, which explores the early Federal period in Philadelphia is one of those few. This must have coincided with increased interest in that era resulting from the national centennial in 1876. I have broken my rule about not including works showing knitting, as Eakins’ subject is actually knitting in the round on three needles. A spinning wheel at the left edge shows her to an accomplished fibrecrafter.
Emma Ekwall was the first Swedish woman painter to be awarded a royal medal, and painted many outstanding portraits of young children. Her undated portrait of a Girl Working by Hand captures the concentration of a young girl as she works with fibres by hand. Ekwall’s style here is loose and brings life to what would otherwise have been quite a static image.
Possibly unique among paintings of women sewing, Paul Gauguin’s Study of a Nude (Suzanne Sewing) from 1880 shows his model undressed for the occasion. It begs several questions: she is undeniably sewing, with a thimble on the middle finger of her right hand, so why is she not clothed? Why is there a mandolin hanging from the inside of the window behind her?
Apparently painted in Paris, the scene is more plausibly that of a more southern location. These oddities appear to have been too much for the public at the time, leaving this work unsold. Perhaps understandably, Gauguin’s wife refused to allow it to be hung on the wall of their home.
Young Scheveningen Woman Seated: Facing Left is one of the earliest surviving paintings by Vincent van Gogh, dating from 1881-82, and one of his few watercolours. It was probably painted when he was at Etten, or perhaps early in his time in The Hague.
By 1882, Renoir had established himself as one of the more successful of the French Impressionists. When in Sicily that year, he painted a portrait of Richard Wagner. As with several other Impressionists, his dealer was Paul Durand-Ruel, who commissioned Renoir to paint each of his five children. Marie-Thérèse Durand-Ruel Sewing (1882) shows the eldest of them.
She is wholly absorbed in her needlework, holding it close, suggesting she may be myopic. She is finely dressed, a little heavily maybe for the fine summer’s day in the garden of the Durand-Ruel’s family home in Normandy.