Representations of women workers

Representations of women workers

  • The ironer.

    DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

  • The consumptive worker.

    PELEZ Fernand (1843 - 1913)

© BPK, Berlin, Dist RMN-Grand Palais - image BStGS

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - F. Vizzavona

Publication date: October 2014

Historical context

Painting the workers in the second part of the XIXe century

From the 1830s, marked by the revolts of the Lyons canuts of 1831 and 1834, the question of the urban proletariat and the workers really arose in France. Women's work and the material and moral conditions of their existence were the subject of fierce political and social debates throughout the second half of the 19th century.e century. Sue (The Mysteries of Paris in 1842-1843), Zola and Hugo thus describe women at work. Gradually, painters also seized on the subject, such as Degas and Pélez.

The Ironer is a painting by Edgar Degas (1834-1917) produced around 1869. This painter of modernity who focuses almost exclusively on contemporary and urban themes inaugurates his work here on the figure of the ironer, a subject then fashionable in literature and painting, and which he will take up from time to time during his work (The Ironers from 1884).

The consumptive worker offers a very different view of the worker. This "painter of poverty", who wants to "show the misfortune of others", has been famous since 1880 and his first paintings of street children in Paris.

Image Analysis

Two opposite figures of the seamstress

In The Ironer, the young Emma Dobigny occupies the center of the composition: in a small room where the laundry dries in the background, she is ironing a large sheer curtain, also light. Dressed lightly (the seamstresses often work in rooms where it is over 30 °) in a white blouse and a blue skirt, she is both healthy and quite robust (see her arms, her cheeks and her chest) . Half tired, half serene, she stares at the painter, without expressing any emotion. The atmosphere of the scene is thus relatively peaceful, an impression reinforced by the luminosity of the whites and the touches of color chosen by Degas.

We only have a black and white photograph of The consumptive worker, but the original canvas plays on dark and gray hues to paint a sick and almost dying woman. Sitting on an armchair near a dim lamp, the young woman is again "at work" (a piece of laundry on her knees, scissors and sewing material on the table). But, emaciated and in pain (the bulging eyes, an effect of thinness, also indicate a respiratory disease), she seems almost inanimate. Dressed almost entirely in a long black dressing gown that contrasts with the paleness of her skin and the white patch of cloth, she turns her head to the side and looks blankly at the sky, seeking her breath, perhaps already. caught up in death.


The worker in debate

In the second part of the XIXe century, the number of blue-collar workers increased considerably in France. In 1886, France had more than 3 million, employed in the industrial sector, a third of whom were women. A proportion that remains unchanged until the beginning of the XXe century, the female working population growing as much as that of men.

These workers are employed in the chemical industry (40% of active workers) and in textile manufacturing (45% of active workers), sectors where mechanization (that of spinning mills in particular) makes the strength of men less necessary. To the workers of large factories and to those of establishments and workshops, we must add the "workers of small trades", who often work at home or in "rooms": the "linen" (sewers, weavers, ironers, laundresses, etc. .) are very numerous. More and more concentrated in the cities, these workers are experiencing difficult living conditions, which the economic “great depression” of the years 1880-1890 made even more precarious. If the uprooting is initially rather male, the women, who are often paid twice less than the men, also know the long working days (between 14 and 15 hours daily), the bad housing (dormitories or "furnished" ), undernourishment, poor hygiene and disease. Worker mortality is thus very high. The dirt and unsanitary conditions that often characterize their workplaces expose women particularly to pulmonary infections (phthisis, tuberculosis), a real scourge of the century. The figure of the "consumptive" worker was thus common at the time.

Albeit in a very different way, the two artists offer a positive view of the worker, opposed to the very critical judgment to which she was also subject. Degas does not want to convey a message or join the debate, but he insists on the strength of the ironer. Work does not damage the body, on the contrary. The movements, the robustness of the woman, the light pink of her warm, naked flesh which stands out against the white of the linen, would even be erotic motifs. The work, if it seems to tire the worker a little, does not corrupt her soul either: obviously healthy and serene, the ironer even expresses a certain nobility.

More miserable, Pélez chose to focus on pulmonary disease, then considered a social disease. At this time, hygiene and health concerns became just political questions. If the painter has always defended himself from an art of claim, evoking neither the Commune, nor the workers' movements of the 1880s, his naturalist and social painting, all in gray and sadness and in contrast to the gaiety of the “Belle Époque” is very significant. Here the body which is no longer really at work is hidden by the dark, as if covered with a shroud and taken over by death. And when it appears, it expresses only suffering and illness: devitalized (so pale and so thin), emptied of all energy (the gaze). An almost Christlike figure (gaze abandoned towards the sky) or a painful figure, the worker who must work to the end of her strength is therefore more to be pitied and to be helped than to be accused.

  • women
  • working world


Gérard NOIRIEL, The Workers in French Society (XIXth-XXth century), Paris, Le Seuil, coll. “Points”, 1986.Georges DUBY and Michelle PERROT (eds.), Histoire des femmes, tome IV “Le XIXe siècle”, Paris, Plon, 1991.Fernand Pélez, 1848-1913: la parade des humbles, catalog de l ' exhibition at the Petit Palais, September 24, 2009 - January 17, 2010, Paris-Musées, 2009.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "Representations of women workers"

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