Women's Work: Debra Mancoff on Degas

  • 11 October 2011

As Degas's ballet dancers go on show at the Royal Academy, Debra N Mancoff reveals how his laundresses and milliners also move to the rhythms of modern life...

As Degas’s ballet dancers go on show at the Royal Academy, Debra N Mancoff reveals how his laundresses and milliners also move to the rhythms of modern life...

Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal, c 1874 Burrell Collection, Glasgow

Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal, c 1874


Burrell Collection, Glasgow

Women in motion

The 1868 debut of the large oil painting Mademoiselle Fiocre in the Ballet ‘La Source’ signalled a new direction in the art of Edgar Degas (1834–1917). In the years that followed, Degas increasingly turned his keen sense of observation to the subject of ballet. He brought dancers to his studio so that he could analyse every movement behind the spectacle of the dance and he shifted his interest from performance to preparation. Riveted by the repeated practice of steps and patterns, the accidental gesture, the expression of weariness and physical strain, Degas recorded dancers at rest and in motion. He remained deeply engaged with the subject for the next 30 years, crafting a body of more than 200 images that refined his artistic vision and ultimately defined his career.

At this crucial stage of his exploration, two other subjects showing women in motion also held Degas’s attention – laundresses and milliners. Whether guiding a hot, heavy iron over freshly laundered fabric or deftly attaching ornaments to newly made hats, these women enacted a contemporary, real-life performance of posture and gesture, honed through repetitive actions and motivated by their need to earn a wage. Degas’s laundresses and milliners share a bond with his dancers. They were all working women, moving to the rhythms of modern life.

Edgar Degas, Women Ironing, c 1884 Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena

Edgar Degas, Women Ironing, c 1884


Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena


Degas’s interest in laundresses can be traced to 1869, just after his first significant depiction of the ballet. Over the next two decades, he produced 27 known images of them in various media, including oil, pastel and print, as well as a number of sketches. As with his initial investigation of the work of dancers, Degas first presented the laundress as a distinct individual, so much so that art historians have speculated about the identity of his model. But he quickly shifted his emphasis from individuality to generality, focusing on the physical demands of the trade.

In Degas’s day, the term laundress encompassed two different labourers: the blanchisseuse who washed the clothes and the repasseuse who ironed them. Both types of work were strenuous and poorly paid, but ironing required more skill and was held in slightly higher regard. And it was the act of ironing that held Degas’s fascination: he created only a few images of women hauling bundles of laundry.

Most of Degas’s ironers do simple work, guiding the hot, heavy iron – weighing six to seven pounds – over a flat swathe of fabric. As in his attentive observation of dancers’ actions, Degas returned repeatedly to a particular set of positions. In Women Ironing, as one woman pushes down on the iron with all her strength, her companion yawns and stretches. She cradles the back of her neck in her raised left hand to relieve the lingering stiffness from her toil – note the pile of crisply ironed shirts on the table – as she reaches for a wine bottle to quench her thirst. With a very different set of gestures, the seated dancer in the lower right quadrant of The Rehearsal eases her own aching joints. Women who strain their bodies must rest them, and Degas captures these postures of relief as a counterpoint to those of action.


By the end of the 1870s, Degas had added milliners to his repertory of working women. During the next decade he explored the subject in at least 15 paintings and pastels, as well as in sketches. Unlike the laundress, the milliner served a strictly female clientele, but for women of economically stable and privileged classes, her services were essential. Just as everyone needed clean laundry, every respectable woman needed to wear a hat outside her home.

The Little Milliners portrays two garnisseuses absorbed in the task of trimming. The plain body of the hat, as seen on the stand between them, would be made elsewhere. Like dancers, the garnisseuses served beauty – art in one case, fashion in the other. And just as each dancer shaped conventional steps with the unique form of her body, each garnisseuse interpreted dictates of fashion through her own talent and taste. In Degas’s pastel, the women attach artificial flowers, feathers, and ribbons to achieve very different effects. But they move in unison, like the line of company dancers seen practising their steps in the upper left quadrant of The Rehearsal.

Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop, 1879/86 Art Institute of Chicago

Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop, 1879/86


Art Institute of Chicago

The largest of his series, the oil painting The Millinery Shop, was not exhibited until after the painter’s death, and X-radiographic analysis reveals that the garnisseuse was first conceived as a client inspecting a hat. It is not know when or why Degas made the change, but the figure is a study in concentration. With her lips pursed around a pin, she extends her arms and raises the hat to better assess her own creation. She wears gloves to avoid marring the fabric; her own head is bare, a clear sign that she is there to work rather than to make a purchase. Through close observation of how labour marked and moulded women’s bodies, Degas discovered a poignancy in what writer George Moore described as the ‘sweet, sad poetry of female work’.

A contradiction?

The question remains as to why Degas, a privileged man, given to arrogant views on class divisions and the social status of women, found such a rich and endlessly intriguing subject in women’s work. The obvious answer is that the subject reflected his unwavering commitment to depicting scenes of modern life, an artistic objective that he shared with such contemporary novelists as Goncourt, Zola and Maupassant. But Degas had no desire to tell the women’s stories. Instead, he sensed a kinship in the repetitive labour of these working women – the dancer practising her steps, the laundress wielding her iron, and the milliner stitching ribbons and flowers. He paid tribute to their isolated and concentrated work as he rendered the same form and subject over and over again in his own studio, seeking to perfect the essential silhouette or singular line that gave art the vitality of life.

'Women's Work' was originally published in Art Quarterly, Autumn 2011.

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