Cleveland Museum of Art explores gritty side of Impressionism in ‘Degas and the Laundress’

CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Cleveland Museum of Art wants to complicate and confound your impressions of French Impressionist painting.

The upcoming exhibition, “Degas and the Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism’’ on view from Sunday, October 8, through Sunday, January 14, explores how Edgar Degas and numerous other late 19th-century French artists depicted the brutal industry that kept Parisians in clean shirts, dresses, bedsheets and lingerie.

We’re not speaking pastel-hued portrayals of waterlily ponds, floral bouquets or ladies with parasols amid lush gardens or breezy meadows.

According to the show’s catalog, the 1901 census in France reported that Paris had 74,000 laundry workers, of whom 67,361 were women.

Britany Salsbury, the museum’s curator of prints and drawings, and the organizer of the exhibition, wrote in the catalog that before the advent of washing machines, working in the laundry business in Paris involved using chemicals, including bleach and lye, “that led to skin irritation and muscle spasms.’’

Laundresses are often hired on a day-to-day basis and have no job security. They handled filthy items that “subjected them to illnesses such as bronchitis and contagious diseases such as tuberculosis,’’ Salsbury wrote.

Employers encouraged their laundresses drink to ease their frustration and dejection. Laundresses brought their kids to unsanitary work places because they lacked childcare. When they couldn’t get by, some laundresses resorted to prostitution.

It’s easy to overlook such realities while perusing images of more than 100 works illustrated in the show’s catalog, including 15 by Degas that will be on view at the museum.

Among them is Degas’s “Repasseuses,’’ or “Women Ironing,’’ 1884–86, on loan from the musée d’Orsay in Paris. It’s a classic Degas, showing two women standing side by side in a laundry. One woman uses her iron to press down hard on a garment, while her partner yawns while holding her left arm against her cheek and grasping the neck a wine bottle with her other hand.

Cleveland Museum of Art explores gritty side of Impressionism in 'Degas and the Laundress'

“Women Ironing,” 1884 –86. Edgar Degas Oil Painting.Musée d’Orsay Photo: Adrien Didierjean.

On the surface, the painting seems an example of Degas’s spectacular skills as a draftsman, and his ability to capture the casual, lifelike gestures and attitudes of his subjects. But there’s more behind such works, and those of other artists represented in the show, including Honoré Daumier, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, and Pablo Picasso.

The laundry ladies were popular because they could be seen walking along the boulevards and streets of Paris with a heavy load of laundry. They would lean against it with their torsos bent, and walk back and forth. The scene was commonplace.

Laundresses could be a representation of sexually attractive women for men. Laundresses, who worked in hot, small spaces, often wore skimpy tops to keep cool, which contributed to the perception of loose morals.

At first glance, however, these works may seem to be typical Impressionist art, aimed at capturing France’s joie de vivre with flickering and broken strokes.

Classic styles

Salsbury, in an interview with & The Plain Dealer, said that artists who depicted the laundresses did so often in their characteristic way, which could obscure some of social meanings within the images.

The artists “brought what they were known for, their signature style or interest, to the subject,’’ she said.

For example, Camille Pissarro’s “The Seine at Port-Marly, Lavoir (La Seine à Port-Marly, le lavoir),’’ 1872, treated a laundress as a focal point amid the greenery of a growing suburb downstream from Paris, where smokestacks intruded on an otherwise bucolic landscape.

Gustave Caillebotte’s paintings of elegant Parisians walking down new boulevards created by city planner Baron Haussmann in order to cut through medieval streets that were claustrophobic are well known. Caillebotte painted this view of laundry drying above the Seine in 1888-92. Nearby, two laundry boats or bateaux-lavoirs that plied the Seine are moored.

Salsbury says that, despite their blissful appearance, such images document how an environmentally distasteful, low-prestige industry was pushed into the periphery, while the center of Paris developed under Haussmann as a center of luxurious living for the upper classes.

Paris is still characterized by the pattern of wealth accumulation in the middle, and the lower-valued banlieues situated at the urban fringe. This pattern reverses the typical American urban donut pattern.

Social realities

Rarely have art historians addressed the injustices hidden in plain view in depictions laundresses of 19th-century France. In part, that’s what drew Salsbury to the subject, given her interest in social art history, which insists that art never stands apart from its political, social and economic context.

Salsbury said she was particularly struck by a 2021 article in The New York Times describing the 1863 Daumier painting, “The Laundress,’’ owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a scene of domestic tranquility that might comfort viewers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cleveland Museum of Art explores gritty side of Impressionism in 'Degas and the Laundress'

“The Laundress,” c.1863, Honoré Daumier, oil on oak panel.The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Salsbury laughed at the description of this painting that will be displayed in Cleveland. It shows a Parisian woman carrying a heavy laundry load up a riverside stairs along the Seine while holding her young child.

“It felt ridiculous to me,’’ Salsbury said of the article. As she sees it, the painting shows a woman “taking her child to work and exposing her to risk because she had no choice. You can look at it as a peaceful painting of a mother and child, but if you know the whole backstory, it’s about something totally different.”

Salsbury said she began her research for the Degas show in 2018 and 2019 but sharpened her focus in 2020 during the pandemic when she realized that the laundresses painted by him and other artists were “essential workers’’ whose labor was critical to a functioning society, even though it was disrespected.

Labor and Materials Identification

She said Degas could recognize. He was the son of wealthy bankers, but gravitated towards laundresses after his inheritance was wiped out by hidden debts, which were revealed in mid-1870s. Degas, who was always diligent and gifted, had to work even harder to earn a living and produce work that would sell.

Cleveland Museum of Art explores gritty side of Impressionism in 'Degas and the Laundress'

Woman Ironing, begun c. 1876, completed c. 1887. Edgar DegasNational Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

As the contemporary French historian Daniel Halévy put it, Degas “became an impoverished painter who had to earn his living and support his brothers who had become poor like himself. Degas’ choice of new models is a sign that he was depressed. . . [He painted] people exhausted by hard work or worn out by the routine of a life of shame.”

Salsbury asserts that Degas was impressed by the laundresses’ skill and precision, which he compared to his own work ethics and those of Parisian dancers – another favorite subject.

Degas also had a connection with the theme of the laundress because his family included cotton brokers from New Orleans, who were part of an enormous global industry that was powered by chattel slavery before the Civil War. This industry supplied raw materials to English mills.

In an 1876 Impressionist exhibition in Paris, Degas showed a painting of his family’s cotton office in New Orleans alongside several of his laundress paintings.

“It seems to suggest there’s something about being around the cotton industry that’s triggering that memory for him and he’s starting to think about it,’’ Salsbury said.

Seeking individuality

Degas worked in his studio and used models dressed as laundresses to create his paintings. Degas’s depictions give the impression that his subjects were real people, not just generic types.

“Woman Ironing (La Repasseuse),’’ on loan from the Neue Pinakothek, Bayerischen Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich, This is an example.

Painted in 1869, it portrays one of Degas’s favorite models, Emma Dobigny, ironing a long, white garment on a worktable with laundry drying on a line behind her. The artist’s abbreviated brushwork, including the blurred double position of Dobigny’s left arm, suggesting motion, is thrilling. His nearly photographic portrayal of Dobigny’s face is riveting.

Degas’s focus on realism based on direct observation paralleled that of the contemporary French novelist Emile Zola, who shocked readers with unflinching descriptions of working-class life in France.

Zola’s novels included “L’Assommoir,” published in 1877, which charted the demise of a laundress who dies on the street, where her untended body decomposes while passersby ignore it. (Salsbury said the museum’s store will be selling the book so readers can understand what Degas and many other Zola fans were reading in late 19th century Paris.)

But unlike Zola, whose heroic 1898 newspaper article, “J’Accuse…!’’ championed the cause of Alfred Dreyfus, the French Jewish army officer unjustly accused of spying for Germany as a scapegoat for misdeeds by higher-ups, Degas was an unrepentant antisemite. Salsbury says it would be incorrect to assume that Degas was sympathetic towards the laundresses depicted in his works.

“I wouldn’t say Degas was on the ramparts,’’ she said. “He was not trying to expose injustice. He was a conservative who said horrible things about women. He was no Zola.”

For Salsbury, it’s unavoidable that Degas made his pictures of laundresses to be acquired and viewed primarily in private by male collectors.

“We have to look at them as pictures of women who were sexually available,’’ she said. “They were images of women made for men, to be viewed in private in private homes.”

Even apparently lighthearted works in the show will likely come off with a darker tinge, including Bonnard’s 1896 lithograph, “The Little Laundress,’’ which shows a young woman, possibly a girl, hauling across a cobbled street while steadying herself with an umbrella used as a cane.

Cleveland Museum of Art explores gritty side of Impressionism in 'Degas and the Laundress'

“The Little Laundress” from
“Album des peintres – graveurs,” 1896, Pierre Bonnard, color lithograph on China paper.Cleveland Museum of Art

“It seems almost sweet,’’ Salsbury said. “But when you know there were young girls who had to support their families with their work,’’ she said, it’s easy to see the print as “pretty dark.’’

Salsbury is aware that his statements are in contrast to the views of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Bonnard as movements which generally focus on idyllic depictions.

But she’s hoping her exhibition presents familiar artworks in a fresh light that makes them compelling in new and unexpected ways.

“I’ve had moments where I wonder whether people will wonder, ‘Why an exhibition on laundry?’ ” she said. “I hope it gets people rethinking something they had already seen many times.”

To judge by the show’s catalog and checklist, there’s a good chance it will change a few minds about late 19th-century French art. Salsbury’s approach couldn’t be more relevant.


What’s up: “Degas and the Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism”

Venue: Cleveland Museum of Art

Where: 11150 East Blvd. Cleveland.

When: October 8 through January 14,

Admission: Tickets start at $15 for museum non-members, or $25 with a combo ticket including admission to “China’s Southern Paradise: Treasures from the Lower Yangzi Delta.” Go to or call 216-421-7350.

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