When most people think of 19th Century French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas, they may first think of paintings of beautiful ballet dancers exhibiting grace and movement.
But the “Degas and the Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism” exhibit that opens today, Wednesday, Nov. 8 at the Cleveland Museum of Art depicts a darker side of life as a working woman in 1800s France.
The exhibit features nearly 100 works from more than 30 European and American collections—marking the first exhibit to explore Degas’s representations of Parisian laundresses and is the largest selection of these works seen together to date.
The works were considered revolutionary in their emphasis on women’s work—emphasizing the strenuousness of such labor, and social class—and were praised by critics as epitomizing modernity.
“When I look at the paintings exhibited in ‘Degas and the Laundress,’ they remind me of the essentialness of women's labor—you can feel the immense weight of this work in their presence within the art,” says Jacqueline Bon, CMA director of communications. “It's powerful to view these images and also recognize that laundresses began to organize soon after trade unions became legal in France.”
Women Ironing, 1884–86. Edgar DegasBon adds that the laundresses organizing provided benefits other workers may have taken for granted. “Organized labor created notable changes to laundresses’ working conditions,” she says. “It included everything from a weekly day of rest to heated workplaces—which improved the quality of their lives.”
In Paris, ironing shops were open to the street and a visible presence in the city, with laundresses carrying heavy baskets of clothing. The depictions of these women provide a surprising contrast to more familiar Impressionist representations of the upper middle class’ life of leisure.
Their job was among the most difficult and poorly paid at the time, forcing some laundresses to supplement their income through sex work. The industry fascinated Degas throughout his career.
“Degas and the Laundress” contextualizes Degas’ works with paintings, drawings, and prints of the same subject by the artist’s contemporaries—including Gustave Caillebotte, Berthe Morisot, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec—as well as painters that he influenced and was influenced by, from Honoré Daumier to Pablo Picasso.
“Degas and the Laundress” runs through Jan 14 and is accompanied by an interdisciplinary, richly illustrated publication featuring thematic essays by scholars of art history, literature, and history.
Taste the Art
To add to the “Degas and the Laundress” experience, CMA will host “Tasting Notes: Date Night with Degas” at Provenance Restaurant in the museum on the second and fourth Fridays of the month through the end of January.
Date Night with Degas includes a docent-led tour of the “Degas and Laundress” at 6 p.m., a mix of live French music and jazz, and a special French menu created by Chef Doug Katz and Bon Appétit Management Company.
CMA’s director of performing arts Gabe Pollack suggests reservations for the docent tours, especially during Date Night with Degas. “It’s expected to fill up quickly,” he says. “There are only 16 spots.”
The first Date Night with Degas event is this Friday, Nov. 10, but the docent tour is already sold out.
Immerse yourself in French food, cocktails, and music in a supper club environment with French food, cocktails, and music every Friday night during the “Degas and the Laundress” exhibit or stop by for dinner after seeing the exhibit on Wednesday nights, when CMA is also open until 9 p.m. (Provenance is open until 8 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays).
Pollack also suggests making reservations at Provenance during evenings with live music.
“Chef Doug Katz and Bon Appétit have created special recipes for this exhibit,” says Pollack. “So make a night of it at the museum based on the Degas exhibit.”
Woman Ironing, Edgar DegasKatz says he, Provenance executive chef Justin Paponetti, and the team studied Degas’ works in the exhibit to find inspiration for the special menu. “It was like everyday life in Paris, instead of fine dining in Paris” he observes. “We thought about what Parisians would eat for supper.”
The menu they decided on includes pei mussels with leeks in a wine butter herb sauce, rabbit sausage, potato puree, and carrots with a prune demi-glace. For dessert there is a pistachio rose profiterole— pâte à choux, pistachio rose Bavarian cream, and a chocolate ganache. The featured cocktail is a L'assommier made of equal parts rye whiskey, yellow chartreuse, Benedictine, and lemon juice.
Katz then took the Provenance menu a step further. “We changed the entire menu to include a Parisian fest menu for the exhibit,” he says, adding that items on the seasonal menu include a leek and comté cheese tart with thyme and greens, smoked trout brandade, roast chicken with glazed carrots, and rice pilaf, trout almandine, and beef bourguignon au poivre.
Katz adds that this dinner menu is a sort of a relaunch of dinners at Provenance, which had been on hold with the pandemic.
“It’s been so long since we did dinner on Wednesday and Friday evenings,” he says. “Date Night with Degas was the perfect time to relaunch, and we plan on doing more of these types of themed menus.”
“Degas and the Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism” runs from Wednesday, Oct. 8 through Jan. 14. Tickets are $15 for adults; $12 for seniors, students, and children ages six to 17; and children aged five and under and CMA members are free. For reservations at Provenance, call (216) 707-2600.