One Fine Show: ‘Degas and the Laundress’ at Cleveland Museum of Art

The ambitious show features nearly 100 works exhibited from over 30 European and American collections.

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened exhibition at a museum outside New York City—a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

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A painting of a woman doing laundry
‘Woman Ironing’, begun c. 1876, completed c. 1887. Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Oil on canvas; 99 x 82.5 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

You don’t need me to tell you that the Manet/Degas show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a triumph—you can ask any critic or bluehair on the Upper East Side. The curation strives to establish a dialectic between the artists, showing Manet as the more idealistic of the two, dreaming up a just-so milliner putting the perfect finishing touches to a single hat on a floral background. Degas’ milliner is lost among the chaos of her hats, which preen, almost sentient.

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A similar dynamic is explored in “Degas and the Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism,” a recently opened show at the Cleveland Museum of Art that explores issues of labor and gender through Degas’ keen eye and flair for drama. “These working-class women were a visible presence across the changing cityscape that so fascinated Degas and his contemporaries and were often seen carrying baskets of clothing and linens or while ironing in storefronts,” Director William M Griswold writes in the introduction to the show’s catalogue. “Degas depicted them throughout his entire career, revisiting the subject for more than half a century.”

The ambitious show features nearly 100 works exhibited from over 30 European and American collections, and pairs the artist’s depictions with those from contemporaries, among them Honoré-Victorin Daumier, Pablo Picasso, Berthe Morisot, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Édouard Vuillard.

But it’s clear that Degas is the master of the subject, and the show’s curation helps us understand how he captured every aspect of their personalities in the popular imagination. In Woman Ironing (1876-1887) we have the faceless woman taking all the work into her back, truly engrossed. The Laundress (c. 1867-1875) looks at the viewer in a bit of a daze with her blouse sliding just off her shoulder. The painting was a gift for a male colleague and plays on contemporary fantasies about such women. In this show you’ll find a remarkably similar pose in a stereograph, as though the hint of a third dimension was going to give the viewer a little more breast.

Women Ironing (1884-1886), which features a yawning woman gripping a bottle instead of an iron, may draw attention to the fact that some of these workers may have been paid with alcohol. Whatever, she’s earned it and these private moments are very valuable. Laundresses Suffering from a Toothache (c.1870–1872) is feast on cardboard and was in fact stolen in 1973 from the Malraux Museum in Le Havre, on loan from the Louvre, then lost for years until it was eventually spotted in a Sotheby’s auction catalogue in 2010, valued at $350,000 to $450,000. It was returned to its rightful owners in a ceremony at the home of the French ambassador. You have to wonder what someone at the fin de siecle would have thought about all the fuss over a laundress examining herself in the mirror.

“Degas and the Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism” is on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art through January 14, 2024. 

One Fine Show: ‘Degas and the Laundress’ at Cleveland Museum of Art