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The art of rural women’s work      

The French female artist Thérèse Marthe Françoise Cotard-Dupré captured the working lives of everyday women in the countryside of north-western France. One of her finest works, La Lessive (or The Washing) provides us with a deeply evocative and defining moment in ‘women’s work.’

As an artist, she emerged from a Parisian extended family of painters who worked in a style called Rural Naturalism, which presented country life in a somewhat idealised or romantic way. She adopted ‘the family style’ but also introduced elements of harder physical reality.

Completed in 1910, when the artist was 23 years old, the scene of La Lessive is set during spring or summer in the lush region of north-western France during the final peaceful years before the catastrophic outbreak the First World War.

The painting features two female figures, presumably being the mother in the right foreground and the daughter in the left background. They are dressed in simple peasant style: note the mother’s swaying blue apron, which accompanies the billowing of the freshly-laundered white sheet; and her heavy leather and wooden sandals or clogs. Her daughter, assisting in laying out the laundry to dry, is likewise dressed in simple working clothes.

The mother’s face is coloured bright red: not because she is wearing rouge on her cheeks like a bourgeoise town lady, but because she’s been bending over the washing water that has been boiling in a large copper vessel. Typically, the boiled washing in ‘the copper’ would be manually agitated and hoisted out using a timber pole about a metre in length. It was hot, steamy, exhausting work – and there was a lifetime of it. At the right edge of the picture, we can see a sturdy wooden wheelbarrow bearing a steel-banded timber tub of heavy, wet washing.

The figure of the mother is remarkable in another way: both the billowing white sheet behind and to her left and the tree branch behind and to her right combine to push the mother so far to the front of the picture that the effect is almost three dimensional. It’s worth taking a very good look at this astonishing effect achieved by the artist.

In terms of deliberate composition or design, the ‘lines’ of the tree branch and the curving sheet, extended by the mother’s outstretched left arm, all point our attention to the head of the mother, which is partially ‘framed’ in green against the pale sky in a near-heroic style. This painting seems to say to us that the life of a French peasant woman is relentlessly hard, but its physical demands are being met by a woman of character and determination, who derives meaning and dignity from her exhausting labour.

The daughter, participating in the work and following the lead from her mother’s actions, can see what life might well bring for herself as the years go by and marriage, motherhood and endless domestic labour beckon. But with the imminent and thunderous arrival of the First World War, this expectation could have been dashed, as poor young women were pressed to become nurses behind the battle front or to work in dirty and dangerous urban industries supporting the French war effort.

Owing both to her artistic talent and her extensive familial connexions with the French art establishment, Cotard-Dupré was accepted as a member of the prestigious Salon des Artistes Français from 1907 – despite a lingering resentment against female artists.

Her adopted home region of Picardy, in the north-west of France, was the scene of four years of cataclysmic violence from 1914. Among the many tragedies of the First World War, most of her paintings were destroyed, consumed by fire and buried under ruins. Cotard-Dupré was reportedly immensely distressed by the destruction of her work. She painted again, but sank into ever deeper despair. In 1920, she died at a clinic in Orly, outside Paris, from the effects of alcoholism. She was just 43 years old.

La Lessive is held in a private collection and is rarely available for public viewing.

By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…

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