The Unadorned Art of Ironing

Among Degas's pictures of women (his well-known ballet dancers, women trying on hats, visiting the museum, having their hair brushed, bathing, or sitting for their portraits), he fostered an interest over many years in the subject of laundresses.

These "women ironing" are far from idealized. They belong to what the advanced writers and painters of mid-to-late-19th-century Paris called "modern life." To describe or paint "modern life" was to escape the romantic or classical world of ancient literature and museum art where women were society figures, paragons, or mythical goddesses. Degas's laundresses would have been familiar figures. He shows them sweating away in cramped, dark basements, enabling the well-to-do to have clean, crisp shirts in which to go to the opera, and fresh bed and table linen for elegant sleeping and dining.

What Degas conveys is the posture and gesture involved in this menial but skilled work. The arm that lifts and moves the weighty iron contrasts with the woman's other hand, used delicately to maneuver the cloth. As with his dancers, Degas is fascinated by a body so engrossed in activity that it is unselfconscious.

The painter also explores the matter of painting a backlit (contre jour) subject. In an earlier "Woman Ironing," his silhouetted laundress was so dark against the window light that one critic asked if the laundress wasn't in fact a coal seller. In this painting the subject is also a silhouette, but the hanging laundry shades the light from outside and she is lit subtly by reflected light.

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