The Washerwoman’s Genes

March 20, 2006

Two Visuals

Filed under: Archetypes — by WWG @ 10:13 am

I want to look at two depictions of women doing wash.

One, by Edouard Manet, is in the collection of the Barnes Museum near Philadelphia.


This washerwoman lives in the country, in the midst of the beauties of nature. She wears a luscious blue dress, a ruffle at the sleeve, its folds covering her well-fed frame. She stands above a wooden tub, and squeezes water from a small wad of clothing. Her hands are white and plump.

The wooden chair holding her tub seems planted in the field, part of nature. Its arching legs and back catch the light and suggest a nearby home of some elegance. The laundered clothes hang peacefully in the shadow of trees. A baby steadies herself by the tub; her blonde curls spill out below a straw hat perched comically on her head. She basks in the peaceful gaze of her mother. In the foreground, there are two pink roses, one in full blossom, the other smaller, a visual echo of the mother and daughter.

The painting is pure poetry to us today, sweet as candy. But when it was painted, it was refused by the by the Salon de Paris because its subject was too prosaic and naturalistic. And, of course its impressionistic technique was considered disturbing, even radical. (Wikipedia)

Le Linge was painted in 1875, about the time Jeannette Quimby Burger was washing clothes in Esopus, New York

Here’s another image of a washerwoman. This is a photo, taken in the mid-1800s, in England.


This is also a mother and children, but it is set indoors. The washerwoman hunches over a tub, her fists locked on the clothes. We can hardly see her face; instead, we relate to the arch of her back, the pistons of her arms.

Her tub is on a chair, wooden, braced against a wall. Her back is to her children; they are arrayed around her, but seem forgotten. Her little son sits behind her, staring downward, his hands around a cup, wearing a coat too big for him. His sisters play on the floor; one is covered in mud, as if the wash water has slopped everywhere. The floor is probably dirt. The irony is painful: while her mother cleans, the girl gets filthy.

Of course, this is in England, not New York. It’s from mid-century, before Jeannette became a single mother. So maybe it has nothing to do with the life of my great-great-grandmother.


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