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More About Lower Class Women

Images of lower class women in the nineteenth century Paris often portray the realities of their class status. Classification of the lower classes can be defined as people who use physical means for their living and include skilled workers and unskilled manual laborers. Images of women as peasants, seamstresses, shop keepers, maids and wet nurses have been depicted by many artists.

Images such as:

Girl with Cherries
Woman Hanging out Clothes
Carriage at the Races
Nana
Olympia
Bar ar the Folies Bergere

are often idealized by the artist's attempt to portray them as noble or giving the image a perception of natural harmony and a notion of effortless labor. From the Realists to the Impressionists, the romanticized images of labor helped to create a certain myth that perpetuates a false reality of nineteenth century lower class women.

The reality of lower class women was far from glamorous, despite the Realist's style of depicting pastoral harmony as in Jean-Francois Millet's The Gleaners to the disturbing image of Edouard Manet's Olympia that challenges the viewer's voyeuristic gaze. In these two images we see the variance between the rural and the urban women workers of the lower classes. Victorine Meurent who modeled for Manet in eight of his paintings including the Olympia and Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe (The Picnic) also claimed to be an artist herself. Manet captured the essence of the real woman in his painting without the anonymity as seen in other paintings of peasants and laborers. When Manet submitted Olympia in the salon of 1865, her confrontational gaze, with the knowledge of her background as a prostitute along with the unorthodox pose of Olympia outraged the male viewers who protested the painting.

The anonymous peasant women in The Gleaners represent the poorest of the rural low class community, who for their sustenance, glean the few grains left after the harvest. In the background, the successful harvest of the wealthy is in stark contrast to the women's meager reward. Contrasting with the harsh reality of the lower classes are the images of women blending in with the peaceful bounty of nature in a pastoral setting. The romanticizing of labor was always a favored theme in art, but the reality of the lives of the low class working women was far different and far from ideal. Working people were often depicted with a sense of quiet dignity as seen in Honore Daumier's Third Class Carriage, which portrays a family. As part of the lower class himself, Daumier's sensitivity and empathy with the plight of the lower class is evident in the image of the family group, quite different than his better known satirical caricatures of upper-middle class society and their life styles. Daumier's depiction of the proletariat family is characteristic of the Humanist, Realist style of the nineteenth century.

In the generations following Courbet and Millet, the notion of work or labor continues to develop in works by the Impressionist painters including Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot. Morisot depicted the themes of Woman hanging out washing in several compositions. This painting is indicative of the social stratification where the life of the artist as a upper-middle class comes in contact with her lower class servant hanging out the wash. This beautiful painting is the embodiment of the stark contrast between the leisure activity of upper class Morisot, and the toil of a servant woman. The nineteenth century brought close physical proximity of different classes even while they remained far apart in social status. The irony which is that Morisot and the servant were both "working women," despite Morisot's upper-class bourgeoisie status.

Carriage At the Races by Edgar Degas serves to deconstruct the social classes depicted in an image. Here both the upper class society at a leisure event is paired with a lower class woman who nurses their precious child. This dichotomy is further complicated when we compare the occupation of the wet nurse to that of Manet's Nana who was a character in one of Emiile Zola's novel and a notorious mistress to Prince of Orange here posed by Henriette Hauser. Nana's association with the aristocracy elevated her status to the upper echelon of society. Nevertheless, in this painting she is seen as a coquettish prostitute while her top hatted client sits demurely watching the fashionable Nana at her toilet. Of all the lower class work for women, prostitution was the least regarded among the jobs available to poor women. During the nineteenth century, prostitutes as well as maids and wet nurses were positions formally regulated by the government as part of the lower class labor force in France.

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