Having wet the clothes, soaped them and scrubbed or beaten the dirt out of them, once thoroughly rinsed they had to be dried. Although in the winter months in particular many were draped over drying frames in a room with an open fire, for the painter the only place washing was dried was outdoors. At least it was most appropriate for painting, and became a popular theme among the Impressionists.
Alice Havers’ Washerwomen, which given her tragically brief life must have been painted around 1880, shows women of a wide range of ages, working together, some repairing the clothes, others talking. Note how two are working together to wring the water from linen. On the other side of the river, the fruit trees are in blossom.
In the early years of the Impressionist movement, Berthe Morisot’s Hanging the Laundry out to Dry (1875) shows a communal drying area at the edge of a town. The women have a large black cart used to transport the washing, and are busy putting it out on the lines to dry in the sunny spells. Next to that area is a small allotment where a man is growing vegetables, and in the distance are the chimneys of the city.
A few years later, Morisot closed in on this Woman Hanging Out the Washing (c 1881) in her garden.
After William Merritt Chase moved into his first family home in Brooklyn, he painted Washing Day – A Backyard Reminiscence of Brooklyn (c 1887). With the sun out, every available space in the backyards has been filled with drying washing, either hanging on lines or laid out on the grass. I somehow doubt that you’ll see this in Brooklyn today.
Early in his career, the American painter Charles Courtney Curran made a series of works described on Wikipedia as featuring “young attractive working class women engaged in a variety of tasks”. Despite that innuendo, the most successful, A Breezy Day (1887) which won the Third Hallgarten Prize for Oils from the National Academy of Design the following year, is hardly a work of licentiousness, and reminds me of some of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings.
Gustave Caillebotte painted at least two well-known works showing laundry blowing in the wind: Linen out to Dry, Petit Gennevilliers (1888), shown above, is relatively small and a good example of a High Impressionist plein air painting. Laundry Drying on the Banks of the Seine, Petit Gennevilliers (c 1892), below, is rather larger and was probably painted at least in part in front of the motif.
For some garments, merely drying them was insufficient, and all the creases had to be ironed out laboriously.
Early in his career, Edgar Degas started painting a series of works showing laundresses. Woman Ironing (c 1869) shows one of the army of women engaged or enslaved in this occupation in Paris at the time. She is young yet stands like an automaton, staring emotionlessly at the viewer. Her right hand moves an iron (not one of today’s convenient electrically-heated models) over an expanse of white linen in front of her. Her left arm hangs limply at her side, and her eyes are puffy from lack of sleep. She is surrounded by pieces of her work, which hang around her.
Degas’ less gloomy painting of a Woman Ironing (c 1876-87) maintains the impression of this being protracted, backbreaking work, only slightly relieved by the colourful garments hanging around the laundress.
Once ready for their next wear, clothes had to be returned.
Infamous, perhaps, for his later smooth Salon nudes, William-Adolphe Bouguereau travelled to Brittany to paint his Washerwomen of Fouesnant (1869), on the coast to the south of Quimper. The two young women in the foreground are undoubtedly pretty, but they’re properly dressed, with heads covered, and only their feet bared to the view.
Washing, drying and ironing clothes was long and arduous, paying but a pittance. At the end of the day came exhaustion.
Fernand Pelez’s early portrait of a Sleeping Laundress (c 1880) is one of a group of works showing poor women reclining. For all her obvious poverty, there is a faint smile on her face, as she enjoys a brief rest from her long hours of washing.
Sometimes we don’t appreciate how lucky we are today.