Woman Ironing (detail), c. 1869. Edgar Degas. The groundbreaking exhibition explores the lives of the working class in 19th century Paris. The nearly 100 works exhibited are from more than 30 European and American collections.

Degas exhibit explores the lives of laundresses
By CYNTHIA SCHUSTER EAKIN
“Degas and the Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism,” a groundbreaking exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, explores the lives of working -class laundresses in 19th century Paris.
The exhibition features representations of Parisian laundresses by Degas and his contemporaries, from Daumier to Picasso, including Morisot, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard and more, united for the first time, only in Cleveland. The artworks from the series, revolutionary in their emphasis on women’s work, the strenuousness of such labor and social class, were featured in Degas’ most significant exhibitions.
“Degas carried out some of the most striking experimentation of his long career throughout his laundress series,” Britany Salsbury, curator of prints and drawings at the Cleveland Museum of Art said. “The subject fascinated him beginning as a young man in the 1850s and continuing until his final decade of work as an artist. The images he created of these women are fascinating for their emphasis on labor itself rather than the stereotypes that persisted about them throughout popular culture. The women who undertook work ironing and washing often did so because they lacked other options, and they endured tremendously difficult working conditions.”
A visible presence in the city, ironing in shops open to the street or carrying heavy baskets of clothing, laundresses undertook some of the most difficult and poorly paid labor at the time, leading some in the industry to supplement their income through sex work. The depictions of these women featured in “Degas and the Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism” provides a surprising contrast to more familiar impressionist representations of upper-middle-class leisure.
The exhibit contextualizes Degas’ laundress series with paintings, drawings and prints of the same subject by the artist’s contemporaries, as well as painters that Degas influenced and was influenced by. It also presents ephemera, such as posters, photographs and books that reveal the widespread interest that Parisians of all social classes had in the topic of laundresses during the late 1800s.
“The extraordinary works assembled for this exhibition reveal a new and exciting aspect of an otherwise well-known art historical movement,” William Griswold, director and president of the Cleveland Museum of Art said. “The Cleveland Museum of Art’s exceptional holdings of 19th century French art situate us to present such an inventive exhibition, and we look forward to sharing works of impressive quality, from Degas’ private sketchbooks to some of his most celebrated canvases alongside those by his colleagues, that have never been seen together.”
The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated publication featuring thematic essays by scholars of art history, French studies, literature and history. The 240-page catalogue is the first publication to examine and document Degas’ portrayals of Parisian laundresses.
Tickets to the exhibit, open through Jan. 14, 2024 in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Gallery, are $15 for adults, and $12 for seniors, students and children ages six to 17. Children age five and under and art museum members are admitted free of charge. A discounted combination ticket for, “China’s Southern Paradise: Treasures from the Lower Yangzi Delta” and “Degas and the Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism” is available for $25 through Jan. 7.
In conjunction with two upcoming exhibitions that explore images of women’s labor during the 19th century, “Degas and the Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism” at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and “Mary Cassatt and Work,” Philadelphia Museum of Art, scholars from around the world will present on an international range of topics related to the visual culture of working women.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, at 11150 East Blvd. in University Circle, is renowned for the quality and breadth of its collection, which includes more than 63,000 artworks and spans 6,000 years of achievements in the arts.
Visit www.clevelandart.org for more information

Woman Ironing (detail), c. 1869. Edgar Degas. The groundbreaking exhibition explores the lives of the working class in 19th century Paris. The nearly 100 works exhibited are from more than 30 European and American collections.