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Women Ironing, Begun c. 1875-1876; reworked c. 1882-1886

Edgar Degas

French, 1834-1917
Oil on canvas
32-3/8 x 29-3/4 in. (82.2 x 75.6 cm)
Norton Simon Art Foundation
M.1971.3.P/M.1979.17.P
© Norton Simon Art Foundation

On view

Once a private, domestic chore, laundry was big business in nineteenth-century Paris, where it employed roughly twenty-five percent of the female workforce. Steamy, dark storefronts, often open to the sidewalk, gave passersby a glimpse of women ironing, bare-armed in the heat. Born into an aristocratic family, Degas was fascinated by working women and by the increasingly porous distinctions between private and public, domestic and commercial in the modern city. His paintings of laundresses—none finer than the present example—reflect this fascination. Probably begun in the 1870s and reworked about a decade later, this picture suggests the brutalizing effects of hard labor. The women hunch, yawn, and drink over a pile of starched shirts, yet the peculiar delicacy of Degas’s touch—mimicking, in the flesh tones, his own work in pastels—reminds us of the laundresses’ youth and femininity.

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