Woman Ironing card

Woman Ironing

WAG 6645

On display


In a Paris laundry, soft yellow light filtering through a curtained door - open to reduce the stifling heat - a woman presses her heavy iron onto the fabric, back slightly hunched and arm rigid with the effort. Absorbed in her work she's isolated from the shadowy figures outside and, boxed in by the board and table, distanced from us. The picture is cut off, like a snapshot. And it looks flat. That's because we're looking at it from two viewpoints simultaneously - across at the woman and down onto the board. That's a feature of the Japanese woodblock prints which influenced many artists at this time. When Degas painted this, in the early eighteen-nineties, other Impressionist artists were depicting women in flattering poses with pretty faces - laundresses scantily-clad and alluring. For Degas this was dishonest. He wanted to show modern city life as it really was. He was particularly interested in the impact of physically demanding, repetitive movements on working-class women's bodies. As he said to a friend, 'With one back, we should want to reveal a temperament, an age, a social state.' Which is probably why there are no facial details here. He'd been making studies of laundry-workers for twenty years - while also exploring the awkward poses of young ballet-dancers. They were a slightly higher class than the ironing-women, but like them worked long hours for little pay. Degas has been accused of disrespect towards women. But this woman's quiet dignity seems to convey a deep respect for her and her work. Degas would make a sculpture like this not to exhibit or sell, but to help him plan a painting. He'd rotate it so he could get the postures in the two-dimensional painting exactly right. If you move around it you'll experience what he saw. The sculpture once belonged to British artist Lucian Freud, who was fascinated by its realistic flesh. There's a portrait by Freud in the next room, Room Eleven.