Spinning natural fibres into yarn, and weaving that into fabric, have such long traditions in most cultures that they have developed associations in stories. These activities have also become considered as the work of women, from the humblest serfs to the noblest of queens. In this week’s pair of articles looking at iconography and the reading of paintings, I look first at spinning, then tomorrow at weaving.
Primary purpose and nostalgia
In their social realism in the late nineteenth century, both Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton painted country women spinning. Breton painted this Young Woman Spinning in Brittany on the coast of the Bay of Douarnenez in 1872.
With the great changes in society during the late nineteenth 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). 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. He’s known to have used photographs in his painting, and may have used them here.
Albert Anker’s painting of Queen Bertha and the Spinners from 1888 shows Bertha of Burgundy (964-1010) teaching three girls, 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 (see below) is appropriate for a queen who somehow survived three marriages at a time when reaching the age of thirty was an achievement.
The Industrious Spinster
Spinning is sometimes shown as an appropriate activity for a young woman to be engaged in when being visited by a suitor or potential husband. Perhaps it was the idea that she would be too busy with her work to be tempted to get near to the man, let alone embrace him. It also conveyed the impression of the woman’s industriousness and devotion to such homely activities.
In Bouguereau’s The Proposal from 1872, even elaborate wrought iron fencing isn’t going to keep the couple apart. The artist shows another common attribute of such courtship scenes: a large cat at the woman’s feet.
In Thomas Eakins’ The Courtship from about 1878, the woman is so busy spinning that she seems almost oblivious of her young man sitting at a distance and watching.
Of course the woman who keeps spinning and never marries then becomes a spinster, the origin of the English word. Its use started when the term was appended to a woman’s name to indicate her occupation, and by 1719 became synonymous with an old maid.
The Fates and thread of life
In classical Greek and Roman mythology, the lives of humans are determined by the thread spun for them by the Moirai (Greek) or Fatae (Roman). Because of their importance, the Romans also came to refer to them euphemistically as the Parcae (the sparing ones). The three were further identified as:
- Clotho (or Nona), the spinner, who holds the distaff and spindle, and spins the thread of life;
- Lachesis (or Decima), the allotter, who measures the thread allotted to each person using her measuring rod;
- Atropos (or Morta), the unturnable, who cuts the thread for each person, choosing the time and manner of their death.
Il Sodoma’s classical depiction of The Three Fates from about 1525 shows from the left Lachesis, Atropos wielding her shears, and Clotho with her distaff and spindle.
Walter Crane’s ingenious Bridge of Life from 1884 uses a continuous white thread of life as the thread of time. The baby born and breastfed in the left foreground passes through life, past Clotho who is spinning the thread of life and time at the upper left. That thread passes over the bridge, and Atropos cuts it on their death, in the right foreground.
Spinning as a womanly pursuit: the feminisation of Hercules
A more bizarre classical reference to spinning is in the enforced feminisation of Hercules (Heracles) by Omphale. As a swashbuckling hero, Hercules would be the last man you’d expect to learn how to spin, but when he has to work for Omphale in her court to pay penance for his murder of Iphitus, that’s exactly what he does.
In the middle of this marvellous mosaic from about 250 CE, Hercules is seen holding his distaff and spindle, dressed as a woman, while Omphale sits on his Nemean lionskin on her throne, clutching his club.
This is the weird theme of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting Hercules and Omphale from 1537. As a paragon of manly attainment, most notably in his twelve labours, Hercules is now dressed as a woman, and performing the womanly task of spinning.
It took Gustave-Claude-Étienne Courtois to cast Hercules as a circus strong-man, a ‘toy-boy’ kneeling in front of an opulent Omphale, in his Hercules at the Feet of Omphale from 1912.
My last painting is probably the most famous depiction of spinning, and certainly its most enigmatic.
Painted originally for Don Pedro de Arce, huntsman to King Philip IV, Velázquez’s Las Hilanderas or The Spinners became part of the Royal Collection, where it’s thought to have been damaged by fire in 1734. When it was repaired, new sections were added to the left, right, and upper edges. Until 1928, it was believed to depict the tapestry workshop of Santa Isabel, with spinners working in the foreground, and tapestries hanging in the background.
Since then, it has been claimed to show the weaving contest between Arachne and Minerva, covered in tomorrow’s article, although careful examination of the painting reveals that no weaving takes place within the image. Instead the women in the foreground show the traditional crafts involved in the production of wool yarn, as seen in the detail below.