Edgar Degas does some more ironing

October 8, 2019 0 Comments
Edgar Degas, La repasseuse

A while ago I drew attention to the pictures Edgar Degas made of women ironing.  I tried to show how this unusual theme brought out the best in him as a painter.  This week, in Avignon, I came across another fine example that I hadn’t seen before.

It’s on display in the Musée Angladon.  This museum houses the works brought together by a remarkable collector, Jacques Doucet.  Doucet, who lived from 1853 to 1929, became a wealthy fashion designer and developed a keen eye for contemporary art.  His most important acquisition was certainly Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), one of the key works of modernism, which he bought from the artist in 1924 for 25,000 francs.  He had the painting appraised a few months later, when it was valued at between 250,000 and 300,000 francs.  Doucet knew Degas and admired his work: among other works in his collection is a superb double drawing, on green paper, of a dancer.

The ironing painting is called La repasseuse au bonet or simply La repasseuse and dates probably from 1874 (and so belongs to Degas’ ‘middle ironing period’).  It’s painted on canvas in what we would now call mixed media – pastel, charcoal and oil (the Museum caption translates ‘essence’ as ‘gas’).  Both composition and colours are simple and severe.  The ironer’s a middle aged woman dressed in black skirt and white blouse and wears a white bonnet with a frilled edge (has she had to iron this herself, you wonder).  The garment or cloth she’s ironing is unpatterned, and the background, an old wall, is equally plain. 

Like many of Degas’ pictures this one holds forceful energy, but energy in poise.  All the forces are directed downward: down through the woman’s trunk, down through her left arm that holds the garment (and almost the frame of the picture) in place, and down through the (slightly bent) right arm.  The hand of that arm clutches, in a tight grip, the handle of the black iron.  There’s a suggestion that Degas originally planning the right arm to descend at a slightly more acute angle: the greater stretch of the arm he finally painted adds to the feeling of hard physical effort.

We don’t see the ironer’s face, which is in dark silhouette.  But that doesn’t mean that she’s a generic, stock labourer.  We feel her as a real, individual presence.  Through his treatment of her figure, and through the simple act of concentrating our attention on her, isolating her from any distracting context, Degas gives her a dignity, even a nobility, that marks him out as one of the most humane of painters.

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