To work is to live without dying.
This beautiful motto was pronounced by Rainer Maria Rilke, the Austrian poet of the fin-de-siècle. I think it perfectly fits the day since today we celebrate workers of the world (students count, too!). On this occasion I would like to pay tribute to all those jobs which don’t exist anymore and the workers whose professions are rare, old-fashioned, or not needed anymore. The paintings we present today prove Rilke right: work of these people will last forever in the art so in a sense they never died.
At Degas‘s time, one could find a millinery shop at almost every corner. Typically run by women for women, the shops produced or sold imported garments and accessories, mostly hats. These days hatmaking is rather an uncommon profession and it is used to describe a designer, a maker, or a salesman of hats primarily for a female clientele. Curiously, the origin of the word ‘milliner’ is related to Milan, a city known for a trade of clothing.
Being a gleaner was a synonym of being poor. Gleaners collected leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they had been commercially harvested or on fields where it was not economically profitable to harvest. It was first described in the Bible and became a legally enforced entitlement of the poor in a number of European countries, including England and France.
Caillebotte painted two paintings treating the theme of parquet planers. The first one is extremely famous and you can find it in Paris in Musée d’Orsay, or on our cover photo. I wanted to show you this one, which was produced a year later and in my opinion is much calmer. It also focuses more on the act of scraping the floor, rather than any homoerotic covert messages (the 1875 painting was also very controversial for its “vulgar subject matter”, as described by a critic)… Scraping floors was/is a means of finishing them very gently. In the past it was commonly practiced, nowadays people do it only when they have very old parquets with significant wear which require a more conservative approach.
As you can see, many women worked as laundresses. It was a very hard physical work, we are so blessed to have washing machines these days! Imagine washing every single item of clothing by hand in a cold river. And then one had to iron it all with a heavy iron and then fold. Laundresses were such a common view that many Impressionist painters painting en plain air painted them: Degas, Renoir, Pissarro…
Courbet was not the only one who painted stone breakers. Seurat was also interested in the lower classes of the society and he painted them at work and at leisure. Stone breaking should rather be called ‘back-breaking’ for it is an exhausting job. Thankfully these days we have machines for that, although there are still people who do it exactly the same way as in the past.
Happy International Workers’ Day to you all!
Find out more: