Of all the many and varied activities that women did and do, one of the most characteristic was spinning. Not only that, but it was socially acceptable for women of all ranks, from queens to laundresses. It was far more purposeful and productive than most of the pursuits of men: spinning turned fibres, principally wool, into yarn, which was then turned into clothing and fabrics for many purposes.
In this article, I’m going to take a quick look through the depiction in paintings of spinning in its various forms, from the Middle Ages through to the early twentieth century. In the next, publishing tomorrow, I will look at some special meanings associated with spinning in paintings.
Albert Anker’s painting of Queen Bertha and the Spinners from 1888 shows Bertha of Burgundy (964-1010) teaching three girls, who are presumably children within the royal court, to spin using distaffs. Generally interpreted as nostalgia for artisanal work before the Industrial Revolution, the significance of a long thread dispensed by the three Fates (discussed in detail in the next article) is appropriate for a woman who somehow survived three marriages, at a time when reaching the age of thirty was quite an achievement.
Several painters who have portrayed the visions of Joan of Arc show her spinning with distaff and spindle. This painting by the short-lived Léon-François Bénouville, Joan of Arc Hearing Voices probably from around 1850, envisages her spinning while tending her father’s sheep.
In Francisco Pradilla Ortiz’s painting of Queen Juana the Mad Imprisoned in Tordesillas with her daughter, the Infanta Catalina from 1906, it isn’t the first queen of Spain who is spinning, but one of her ladies-in-waiting. This was during Juana’s effective imprisonment in the Convent of Santa Clara, in Tordesillas, north-west of Madrid in northern Spain. She was taken there in 1509, and despite being co-monarch of Castile and Aragon with her son Charles I, remained there until her death in 1555.
It’s thought that the spinning wheel was invented in India, and first appeared in Europe during the Middle Ages. But hand-spinning with distaff and spindle remained extremely common until the nineteenth century, because spinning could continue even when walking. Maarten van Heemskerck’s Portrait of a Lady Spinning from about 1531 shows an affluent woman who was clearly proud of her ornately-decorated spinning wheel, hardly the sort to take to the streets with her distaff in hand.
With the great changes in society in the late eighteenth century, spinning, at least among those who lived in the cities, was on the decline. It then became a craft of the golden past, and artists such as Thomas Eakins harked back to its heyday In Grandmother’s Time (1876). Eakins seems to have had quite a fascination for spinners, and painted several other works showing them at their wheels.
One significant detail worth noting in this painting is the way in which Eakins shows the spinning wheel, with its spokes blurred as if caught in the exposure of a camera. Eakins used photography in his painting, and may have used photographic images in its preparation.
Another great American painter of the period depicted spinning (also with blurred spokes of the wheel) in the past: Henry Ossawa Tanner, in his Spinning By Firelight – The Boyhood of George Washington Gray from 1894. This shows the spartan living room of a small, poor country family, and was commissioned by the same George Washington Gray (1834-1913), who was by that time a Chicago Methodist Episcopalian Minister, educator, and social reformer.
Spinning may have declined in popularity in the cities, but it remained commonplace in the provinces and country. François-Joseph Navez here shows a group of Women Spinning in Fondi in 1845. Fondi is a town roughly midway between Rome and Naples. Two of the women are actively spinning, one has dropped her distaff to gaze pensively at her young baby, and the woman in red in the centre is probably crocheting.
Gustave Courbet’s wonderful painting of The Sleeping Spinner from 1853 shows a woman who has finally given in to her tiredness, leaving her wheel at rest as she dozes.
One of the common motifs across the centuries has been the mother simultaneously rocking an infant’s crib while trying to spin, shown here by Charles Joseph Grips, in The Spinner’s Favorite from 1866.
In their social realism in the late nineteenth century, both Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton painted country women spinning. Two examples of Breton’s paintings are above, The Flax Spinner, and below, Young Woman Spinning, both painted in Brittany on the coast of the Bay of Douarnenez in 1872. These probably show the same model, provisionally identified as Soisik Jouinou, who was a favourite with Breton at this time.
At the same time, William-Adolphe Bouguereau was painting spinning. One work of his I will show in the next article; another is The Spinner from 1873, which may have been his response to Breton.
I haven’t been able to find a date for Léon Augustin Lhermitte’s The Spinner, but suspect that it was painted a decade or so later. This woman’s arms are well-muscled from a lifetime of manual labour, but she is sufficiently rich to afford a treadle-powered wheel with sophisticated fittings.
Later, just a year before his death in 1890, Vincent van Gogh painted The Spinner after Millet.
Although the wheel became prevalent in rural areas by the end of the nineteenth century, in this undated painting by Eugenio Zampighi from around 1900, A Helping Hand, this young mother is still using a distaff.
I suspect that Lilly Segerdahl’s painting of The Spinners is more recent still.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also saw the rise of industrial spinning, which employed many women. Giovanni Migliara’s Mylius Spinning Mill from 1828 shows a visit by a well-dressed and obviously affluent woman and her family, as the workers toil away.
Some industrial spinning still used manual methods, though, even at the end of the nineteenth century, as shown in Max Liebermann’s The Flax Barn at Laren, which was painted between 1880-90. I think that this was painted in the Netherlands.