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Gallery talk on 'Woman Ironing' by Degas, transcript

Director of Art Galleries, Reyahn King, gives a gallery talk on 'Woman Ironing' by Degas, from the French Impressionists |exhibition held at the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

Reyahn King : Hello, I'm Reyahn King, Director of Art Galleries for National Museums Liverpool. Welcome to the Lady Lever Art Gallery and this wonderful exhibition produced in collaboration with the Nationalmuseum Stockholm. The Walker Art Gallery has a strong collection of works by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters brought together here with highlights from Stockholm. I do urge you later in the year to visit the Walker to see works by other French artists such as Cezanne and Matisse as well as the British Impressionists some of whom will be on display in our exhibition ‘New Radicals’ later in the year.

The painting I am going to talk about today - Degas' 'Woman Ironing' - was bought in 1968. It was the first painting outside a London national museum to be bought taking advantage of special estate duty legislation to allow museums to buy works of art. There’s a little known link to actor Richard Burton, which is that he tried to acquire the painting but because of the estate duty arrangements we were able to secure it for the nation instead. As I go through the talk I think you’ll see why it was such an important painting for us to acquire.

Degas was born in 1834 into the aristocratic de Gas family although his financial situation as a young man and beyond meant that Degas was forced to earn a living. Nevertheless the artists that he later became friends with tended also to be those from a privileged background like Tissot. In 1855 Degas started at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He painted some early paintings for the Paris Salon, the equivalent of London’s Royal Academy, but his work didn’t attract much attention. Degas' work at this time was heavily influenced by Ingres, the outstanding artist and portraitist with a genius for drawing. He painted many portraits in the 1860s mainly of people from his own social milieu.

During the Franco-Prussian war he stayed in Paris during the siege – he was assigned to an artillery battery which undermined his already weak health. Up to1870 he had frequented the Café Guerbois with Zola, Duranty and other Realist and naturalist writers but he shifted his allegiance to another café during the 1870s - la Nouvelle Athenes - which was frequented by Manet, Renoir and other Impressionists. At 40 Degas became involved in setting up the exhibition that became known as the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. Note that the exhibition was not set up as an Impressionist exhibition but as an independents exhibition of quite a varied group of artists without a shared manifesto. It was only a disparaging remark by a journalist after looking at Monet’s work titled ‘Impression: Sunrise’ that the label Impressionist was coined, initially used as a joke by journalists.

Degas exhibited in all the Impressionist group shows except the 7th in 1882. There were Impressionist exhibitions featuring his works in 1876, 1877, 1879, 1880, 1881, and the last 8th Impressionist show in 1886. However Degas' artistic ideas were perhaps less in tune with the other Impressionists and more in tune with contemporary Realist and naturalist writers like his friend Louise Edmond Duranty, and novelist Emile Zola. Unlike Monet and Renoir, Degas always emphasized the primary importance of line and drawing over colour effects - you can see this emphasis in all his works - in the 'Woman Ironing' look at the outlines of her arms for example. In fact Degas upset the other Impressionists in 1876 by collaborating with Duranty on a publication called 'La Nouvelle Peinture' which argued that 'The New Painting' was a kind of Realism of precise observation practiced by artists who were both colourists and draftsmen but that the draftsmen were more likely to achieve the goal. Walter Sickert reports Degas referring to Monet, Renoir and Pissaro in 1885 "They are all exploiting the possibilities of colour. And I am always begging them to exploit the possibilities of drawing. It is the richer field." Degas even tried to have the word Impressionist removed or the words Independents or Realists added to the title of the exhibitions.

Like the realist novelists of his day, Degas believed that truth could be harsh and ugly and he showed his women in poses that don’t flatter or prettify them. Compare this to Renoir’s approach in his 'Young Parisian Lady'. Renoir wouldn’t represent ugliness or poverty; he believed that by presenting women away from the unpleasant realities of work and daily life, he was honouring them. Degas condemned this as a sort of deception. We can see looking at this painting of 'Woman Ironing' that Degas is not setting out to make the woman pretty - rather, his emphasis is on her work. Degas also stood apart from the other Impressionists because he professed scorn for the practice of outdoor landscape painting, and the improvised composition and rapid brushwork associated with it. His own work involved numerous preliminary drawings, and the controlled environment of a studio with his subjects posed in prescribed positions in front of the artist.

From the very first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, Degas' subjects are those that would dominate his work: a woman ironing, a ballet rehearsal scene, a woman getting out of the bath, a racing scene. All these subjects would reappear throughout his work and they all fit Baudelaire's comment that artists should concentrate on painting modern life - this is what the Impressionists did. They focused on the urban life around them, on observing and portraying it rather than trying to produce the grand historical or allegorical scenes favoured by the exhibition Salon and the teaching Academy.

From the mid 1880s Degas continued to work with the subjects identified in the 1870s but his compositions became simpler, spaces more shallow, colour more luxurious. Still the colour is not used in place of draughtsmanship - it is subservient to it. The Walker’s painting has been dated to around 1892 on the basis of the comparative simplicity of the composition, the tight focus on the woman and her simple activity, and the rich colour. The two earlier versions of similar compositions of ironers have more distracting detail such as laundry hanging in the background. Unlike almost all earlier ironers, the fabric being ironed is not a plain white or pale colour, but a rich dark textured green with gold.

In the final decades of his life, Degas’ always poor health deteriorated and he painted despite failing eyesight through the 1890s. His last dated work is from 1903 but friends reported him drawing long after that. Over these years, his painting became more abstract, and colours more intense. He started to draw more on memory and imagination than observation. He moved his studio and living quarters in 1912 and this is believed to mark the end of his artistic output. He died in 1917.

Diarist and novelist Edmond de Goncourt, described a visit to Degas’ studio in 1874: "He has fallen in love with modern life, and from modern life, he has thrown his gaze upon washerwomen and ballet dancers… He places before 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." Degas in fact produced 27 ironers and washerwomen in a series from 1873 to 1895 - the Walker’s painting is one of the last in the series. He also famously produced even more images of ballet dancers and it’s worth noting that of his entire output three quarters of his work in all media are images of women. Richard Kendall has said "Degas aspired to an encyclopaedic representation of the women of his metropolitan world."

I am going to put some of Degas’ images of women in their social context but it is worth pointing out first that Degas’ concerns are also formal pictorial ones - to do with capturing movement through drawing. A contemporary critic, Gustave Geffroy, concluded that Degas’ women didn’t need the expression of a face but that a typical Degas woman was "without the décor of the toilette, a woman reduced to the gesticulation of her limbs, to the appearance of her body, a woman considered as a female, expressed in her animality, as if it were a matter of a superior illustration in a zoological textbook..." There is some truth to this observation. The numerous studies of women in different stages of an action by Degas - whether that be bathing, dancing or ironing - have a sort of observational cumulative quality about them akin to Muybridge’s roughly contemporary photographs of people and animals in motion. Take the ‘Grande Arabesque, Third Time', which is this sculpture here [indicates sculpture]. Degas modelled a large group of works that study this ballet position. Together they create the sequential action of the arabesque.

Although Degas’ portraits of women of his own class frequently contain insightful social innuendo, it is his images of other working women that provide context to the ironers and laundresses. It is worth pointing out that the title 'Woman Ironing' is slightly misleading in the 21st century when most women do their own ironing: this woman is a professional, full-time ironer. Although the scene is intimate and has the calm focus of a portrait it is really more of a genre, a subject scene: the ironer represents a working type. For a start we cannot see her face clearly - she is reduced to an anonymous lower class person who irons for a living. This is not always true of Degas’ ironers - in some images the ironers' faces and expressions are clearly presented to view but there is sometimes a quality of caricature, at other times a quality of blankness about the expression that makes them appear to represent a type rather than an individual.

Degas' work is of its time. It shares the classificatory tendencies of the 19th century by which types of people were allocated positions in society and assumptions about their behaviour were made. There were numerous popular books of this kind such as 'Les Francais Peints par Eux-memes' or; 'The French Painted by Themselves’ of 1840 - 42. In it, every social class and every profession was given a full page illustration and a short essay. At the bottom of the social pile are washerwomen, then ironers, ballet dancers and milliners are higher up because they were paid more and mixed in public spaces like the theatre and the shops with the middle classes. Higher still of course are the women of the middle class who didn’t work.

The classifications in these popular works herald the approach taken by Degas' generation of realist and naturalist novelists and artists. Richard Kendall has suggested that the higher the class of women the more Degas positions them at a comfortable angle to the viewer. Degas' portraits of women of his own class are at close quarters and could make eye contact with us. The working women are usually separated by some kind of pictorial device often inspired by Japanese art. Look at the angle in our painting of the table and ironing board, which box the ironer into a corner and a space that we, the viewers, are beyond. Certainly we feel as if we are watching her but couldn't interrupt or talk to her.

Ironers then are near the bottom of the social scale but what was the work actually like? A professional ironer got up at 5am and stopped work at 11pm on a typical day. On a Saturday night she would usually work through the night to ensure others could wear their Sunday best. Conditions were stiflingly hot and humid because of the hot stoves that the irons rested on and the damp clothing - so front doors of the ironing shops were left open to the street. The laundresses worked in small spaces with clean and dirty clothing filling the space. These rooms were often also where they prepared food and ate. The irons weighed six to seven pounds and the work varied from precision work on delicate fabrics which required a quality ironer and resulted in pride and boring work on sheets, table cloths and curtains. Our woman here appears to be ironing a beautiful fabric and we can assume she is taking some pride and care in the task. Illness was high with a tendency towards tuberculosis and bronchitis. It was one of the worst paid professions - only seamstresses and washerwomen earned less. Even with careful budgeting the income was barely enough to cover ordinary expenses like food and rent and clothing.

Novelists picked up on these social conditions and used them in literature. In Emile Zola's naturalist novel, 'L’Assommoir' or 'The Dram Shop' of 1876-7 the classification of types is graded between laundress characters and even between the same woman at different times. Thus in the early part of the novel, the ironer Gervaise takes pride in her work, saves, rents her own ironing shop and gains a bit of respectability. In contrast we are introduced to Clemence like this: "a tall girl was returning with a pail to one of the neighbouring rooms, Gervaise caught sight of an unmade bed, where a man was waiting in shirtsleeves, sprawling and looking towards the ceiling: when the door shut, a handwritten visiting card announced: Mademoiselle Clemence, Ironing." The description of Clemence is the stereotypical middle class view of ironers at the time.

There can be a similar tendency towards contempt in Degas' portrayal of working women. If we look at a sculpture called ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’ we see a young girl in ballet pose with the unusual use of muslin and silk to represent the tutu and hair ribbon. It caused a scandal in 1881. Degas exaggerated the young girl’s features to conform to stereotyped beliefs of the time relating to class. Thus the model Marie Van Goethem is presented with her lower jaw exaggerated giving her a slightly animal appearance, which was in keeping with the beliefs about physiognomy of the time that claimed such physical features revealed the criminal tendencies in the lower classes.

Contemporary critics assumed not, as we now know, that Degas had altered her features but that the girl was from a deviant social class and naturally ugly. A contemporary writer Claretie notes "the vicious muzzle of this little, barely pubescent girl, this little flower of the gutter". Degas is thus very much of his time, with a contempt for the lower classes revealed in some of his work - it's revealed again in the caricatured facial expressions and physically awkward poses in his images of the café concert singers, the women who sang in cafés and were at the bottom of the performing arts.

On the other hand, there is very often a mixture of respect with socially nuanced observation in his ballet scenes. The dancers are shown not only at the peak of their profession as stars on the public stage - but more often back stage, in various poses ranging from alert training to drooping, seated exhaustion. In the ballet rehearsal scenes it is as if we are seeing in one moment of time and expressed by different women, all the different moments of a dancer’s life. The triumph of a successful execution of complex steps, the boredom and tiredness, and above all the repetitive practice. This repetitive practice is something we see in Degas own work - in the way he revisits subjects and compositions. It’s something we see especially in ironers where his emphasis is on the physical pressure brought to bear on the iron and the way this heavy work impacts on the body. Look at the curve of this woman’s back, the way the centre of the painting is dominated by the diagonal of her taut arm pushing down the iron. Degas described his realism to his friend Duranty thus "With one back, we should want to reveal a temperament, an age, a social state."

So Degas shows his laundresses in different but typical work positions and I am tempted to think, in different circumstances at different times. By the end of Zola's novel about his laundress, Gervaise has sunk into alcoholism, poverty and sexual degradation, due to a combination of bad luck, poor taste in men, and overindulgence on food and drink. Degas' 27 images include laundresses and ironers at different stages akin to Gervaise's experience.

Two ironers are similar to this image in which respectability dominates, though in these images the process nature of the work is clearer. A later work is typical of another type of illustration of ironers where the commercial environment is more obvious. We sense a larger establishment with two women shown at work, the large stove for the irons to heat up on in the background, and a sense of almost a production line. Whilst one woman is hard at work with all the weight of her body being pressed into the iron on the table, another yawns and holds a bottle. With a sort of biting humour, this could be the portrayal of two laundresses with very different characters. Equally I see it as the reality of a working day for an average woman - hard graft combined with necessary breaks to stretch, take a break and a drink. Degas' harshest evocation of the life of an ironer occurs in an etching of about 1879 in which two women carry on working whilst another sits brooding in exhaustion, apathy or perhaps alcoholic stupor in the foreground.

Before Gervaise loses her ironing shop, Zola describes one of the male characters who has taken to sitting in the shop at night: "He was overcome by the great heat of the stove, and the smell of the linen steaming under the irons...his thoughts wandering and his eyes captivated by these women as they hurried about, swinging their naked arms...All around the shop, the nearby houses dozed, the heavy silence of sleep slowly falling... Now, in the dark deserted street, only the door cast a ray of light, like a bolt of yellow material...Someone was coming; and, when he crossed the stream of light, he turned towards it, surprised by the noises of the irons and taking away with him a brief glimpse of half-dressed women in a pinkish haze."

There is a slightly dubious romance to the way Zola describes his character's perception of the scene - one shared by Degas in this comment made in a letter written when he was homesick staying in New Orleans "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." Zola’s description of the early hours in the ironing shop of a woman sinking into immorality makes us look again at the Walker painting and see the contrast. The door is open to combat the stifling heat but the light is shining in from the street rather than out onto it. She is working by day when others are enjoying the sunshine; she is respectably dressed and focused on the work that keeps her in the shadows. It is the ironer, not the passer by who seems isolated.

I would argue that the overall impression in the Walker's 'Woman Ironing' is of respect for her work, a recognition that this woman despite her milieu is making ends meet, is showing pride in her work and is hard working and respectable. Some of Degas' attitude in this mood is captured in his 1891 observation; "I love to see the families of the working-men in the Marais. You go into these wretched-looking houses with great wide doors, and you find bright rooms, meticulously clean...everybody is lively; everybody is working."

Images of laundresses were common in Degas' time - and they were usually depicted as pretty coquettish women with scanty clothing - not so here. As such the painting goes against the normal cartoon art and contemporary prejudices about these women. Although the subject is conventional, Degas has turned it on its head, not by prettifying, but by giving a dignity to work. As with his other images of working women, with their range of pose and social suggestiveness, Degas' laundresses appear to be different to each other - or, looked at from another perspective, his paintings of them reveal the range of experience and physical strain within their field of work. It is hard to draw any other conclusion than that Degas intended an almost scientific study of the work of women and the impact it had on their lives and their bodies. In her discussion of Degas' images of women and modern life, Eunice Lipton concludes about his ballet dancer images that "What is so interesting and important about his works is that they are deeply ambiguous; they both do and do not adhere to prevailing prejudices; they both support and subvert the commonly held stereotypes." The same could be applied to the ironers.

Ultimately I like to think of them as representative of different moments in the life journey of Gervaise, a representative type of working woman but also an affecting and doomed character. On that trajectory, the Walker's painting is of a moment where work is still holding out some hope for a reasonable and respectable, if dull and grinding, future.