Ironing clothes is one of the small but rewarding pleasures of life.
I tend to do it in the kitchen on a Sunday morning, when the sun falls on the ironing board and good music comes from the radio. Smoothing creases in cotton always has a calming effect on the mind. Occasionally the regular passage of the iron can lead to a trance-like abstraction and contentment unattainable by most other means.
But of course the 21st century ironer is lucky. Though ironing will never be wholly automated its technology has progressed. The modern iron is light, adaptable, self-powering and integrated (steam production being internalised). In the heyday of ironing in the nineteenth century, when clothes were numerous and complex, and cleanliness a metaphor for sanctity, clothes were voluminous, irons were heavy, and external sources of heat and water made things complicated.
For us, ironing may be a chore or a pleasure, but it’s normally a brief and amateur activity. It’s also a task shared between women and men (Roy Hattersley is a famous exponent). A century and a half ago it was a low-status occupation for working class women: hot, monotonous and unrelieved by distractions. Nevertheless, even then ironers didn’t always go unobserved.
The supreme poet of ironing is the painter Edgar Degas.
Degas had a conventional painter’s training in the academic tradition but became convinced by the late 1860s that his true subject should be the everyday life he found around him on the streets of Paris. He’s best known for the long series of paintings, pastels and drawings on ballet, the theatre and racing, but from 1869 he added another theme, that of laundresses, especially those engaged in ironing. There are 27 extant depictions of them. They were a subject that must have appealed for several reasons. Laundresses were invariably women, and woman – whatever belittling remarks he may have made about gender in conversation – never ceased to fascinate Degas as a painter. Ironing is a specialised physical activity requiring a degree of effort, concentration and skill: his ideal subject (one thinks of his ballet trainees or Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando). Compositionally ironing offers strong figural possibilities, with large expanses of material (the washing) as background. On 19 November 1872 Degas wrote to his friend the painter James Tissot from New Orleans, where he was visiting his American relatives,
Everything is beautiful in this world of the people. But one Paris laundry girl, with bare arms, is worth it all for such a pronounced Parisian as I am. The right way is to collect oneself, and one can only collect oneself by seeing little.
Laundresses were already recognised as a French artist’s subject. Chardin and Greuze had painted them in the eighteenth century. More recently, in the new realist tradition, Honoré Daumier, a painter Degas admired, had depicted them more than once. François Bonvin painted Woman ironing in 1858 (now in Philadelphia; an 1856 oil sketch is in National Museum Wales), and in the same year Pierre Edouard Frère painted a woman at the same task, The Laundress (Haworth Art Gallery, Accrington). Meanwhile Emile Zola was investigating the life of laundresses for his novel of Parisian poverty L’assommoir published in 1877:
Clemence took an iron from the stove with her leather holder in which a piece of sheet iron was inserted, and held it up to her cheek to see how hot it was. She rubbed it on her brick, wiped it on a piece of rag hanging from her waist-band and started on her thirty-fifth shirt, first of all ironing the shoulders and the sleeves.
One of the first of Degas’ treatments of la repasseuse (the female ironer) is a tentative charcoal, crayon and pastel sketch (1869), now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The woman’s pose is awkward, one hand on the iron, the other (the arm is uncertainly positioned) holding the cloth, but the face is distracted from the work and looks up diagonally out of the picture. The subject is not a real-life laundress, but one of Degas’ regular models, Emma Dobigny. It’s a static composition and gives little information to us about the kind of work the real-life ironer would experience. As we’ll see, Degas found a much more satisfactory way of positioning the figure when he made a full-scale oil painting of Emma in the laundry.
By the time Degas came to paint A woman ironing (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) in 1873 the hard effort and intensity of the task are much clearer. In this painting the figure of the woman is backlit and silhouette-like while the clothes she’s ironing are rendered impressionistically, as if Degas wants to freeze the toing-and-froing of the iron. Shirts hang above her head and a steady white light from the window floods over the walls and table. As in other ‘laundry paintings’ of the period this one seems to echo Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century that feature women engaged in a solitary task by a window (though laundresses and ironers don’t seem to appear in the Dutch paintings).
Degas uses the same composition in two later pictures, one in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the other in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. In the latter the table has been replaced by an ironing board, and the details simplified. The impressionistic treatment has disappeared and flat blocks of pastel-like colour, green, orange and brown, give the figure a more statuesque appearance. No facial features are visible, and Degas has similarly abstracted the window, wall and hanging washing into a series of vertical cream stripes. But the picture isn’t lifeless: the outline of the head, with its hanging curl of hair, conveys the concentration of the woman working, while the bright green and yellow dress she’s ironing cuts a bright diagonal slash across the canvas.
Diagonal composition is strong in a very different painting from the 1880s, now in the Reading Public Museum, Pennsylvania. This time the ironing woman is viewed from above, as if from a balcony. Her elbows jut out as she irons and holds the cloth on a large table. She wears a bright orange blouse, but what’s striking is that we can barely see her head, not just because we’re above, but because it’s almost obscured by clothes hanging above her. Was Degas attracted mainly by the unconventional standpoint (a common predilection of his) or did he mean the distancing and masking of the woman to signify the alienating and degrading nature of her toil?
In the late 1880s Degas was still observing ironing, with an increasing empathy for the situation of the women. Four similar paintings portray a pair of workers side by side. The one in the Musée d’Orsay, though an oil painting, gives the strong impression of being a pastel. Its treatment is rough – Degas painted directly on to an unprimed canvas – and the bare background can be seen through parts of the paint. One of the women presses down hard on the iron with both arms while the other, holding a water bottle in her left hand and cradling her head with the other, stands back and fails to suppress a wide yawn of exhaustion. These are real women, oppressed by the severe labour of their work and bored by its monotony in equal measure.
Though Degas’ treatment of his ironing women is far from naturalistic, there’s no doubt that they’re the product of prolonged study. Much earlier, on 13 February 1874, Edmond de Goncourt noted in his journal
Yesterday I spent the whole day in the studio of a strange painter called Degas … He places before for our eyes, with their various poses and their graceful foreshortening, washerwomen and still more washerwomen, speaking their own language and explaining the technical details of the motions of pressing and ironing …
Finally, two more women ironing, both featuring Emma Dobigny. The first dates from 1873 and is a simple but powerful oil sketch (Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, Ca.). The woman again presses down hard on the iron, one hand on the other. The table is barely represented and just a few lines in the background stand in for hanging clothes. The only fully realised object, apart from the iron itself is a strong, thick dark stripe behind Emma (the flue of a stove?), which serves to emphasise the verticality of the composition. Her figure is more carefully painted. Her look is intense, her physical effort reflected in the blush in her cheek. Yet at the same time, as so often in Degas, there is a dignity apparent in the composition and a respect shown to the woman that lifts the picture well beyond sympathetic documentary realism. The painter, you feel, has spent hours of his time feeling his way into the work and mind of the woman, but he also stands back from her and pays her a silent but serious tribute, as a fellow human being, not just an ironing labourer.
There’s one of Degas’ ironing women who stands out from all the rest. This is because she’s paused from her downward-looking work and directs her gaze straight at us. It’s an unfinished painting, one of the earliest of the series, dating from 1869, and now lives in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich (it was found in Degas’ studio on his death). In the foreground, the whole bottom third of the canvas, is a wide expanse, almost a sea, of white, daintily patterned fabric: at the bottom its hem seems to wash on the painting’s shore. Rows of hanging clothes, roughly painted, advance in planes from the background. Squeezed in the middle is Emma, a laundry prisoner, her lower half hidden by the ocean of cloth. Her right hand holds the iron, the left arm hangs vertical, hand hidden. Degas has clearly experimented with different positions for both arms, without finally resolving which he preferred. Dress and blouse are both sketched in quickly, leaving, at the heart of the picture and its focus, the only fully painted element, Emma’s head. She stares steadily, almost impassively at us. We’ve interrupted her work, but she looks at us squarely and calmly, without surprise or subservience. Despite the captivity of her toil she treats us as equals, and Degas encourages us to reciprocate.
Degas is the most misunderstood of the great painters, and an object lesson in how not to read the life into the art. He associated, and became associated, with the Impressionists, without ever treating their essential method as anything but another technique, to be used alongside others. He projected himself as a grumpy curmudgeon and reactionary, yet as a painter he was by far the most revolutionary of his contemporaries, innovating still in his seventies.
He was known as a misogynist, and indeed seems to have encouraged such a reputation himself. Some feminist critics have taken this at face value, even though it seems that Degas had perfectly happy and equal relationships with women, a good example being the painter Mary Cassatt. Some have also claimed that misogyny is plain in Degas’ art, and infects it.
And yet how, as other feminist writers have pointed out, would you ever know from his works that Degas detested women if you were ignorant of his life? As with Vermeer, women are his main subject, making up three-quarters of his subjects, and are shown with respect and sometimes tenderness – never with disdain, even if they’re prostitutes. What’s more, they’re never registered as simply ‘pretty’, as in the work of Renoir or many other painters of the time.
Whatever view you take on that issue, we can probably agree on one thing: on ironing, if not on irony, Degas was a new man, well ahead of his time.