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Laundresses were already recognised as a French artist’s subject. Chardin and Greuze had painted them in the eighteenth century. More recently, in the new realist tradition,Honoré Daumier, a painter Degas admired, had depicted them more than once. François Bonvin (1817–1887) painted Woman ironing in 1858 (now in Philadelphia; an 1856 oil sketch is in National Museum Wales), and in the same year Pierre Edouard Frère painted a woman at the same task, The Laundress (Haworth Art Gallery, Accrington).
The supreme poet of ironing is the painter Edgar Degas. He’s best known for the long series of paintings, pastels and drawings on ballet, the theatre and racing, but from 1869 he added another theme, that of laundresses, especially those engaged in ironing. There are 27 extant depictions of them. On 19 November 1872 Degas wrote to his friend the painter James Tissot from New Orleans, where he was visiting his American relatives,
Everything is beautiful in this world of the people. But one Paris laundry girl, with bare arms, is worth it all for such a pronounced Parisian as I am. The right way is to collect oneself, and one can only collect oneself by seeing little.