Three Impressionist paintings that give an insight into the complicated history of breastfeeding in the 19th century – The Conversation

The history of breastfeeding reveals uncomfortable truths about women, work and money. An unlikely place where the history associated with nursing is clearly visible is in Impressionist paintings.

Although the art of Manet and his followers is best known for its sunny landscapes and scenes of Parisian leisure, many of these paintings tell complicated human stories. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot depict breastfeeding a baby as the perfect example of women’s invisible labour.

In the particular 19th century, wet-nursing – where women were paid to nurse someone else’s child – was widely practised in Europe .

Wet-nursing is an age-old practice, but in 19th-century Paris, as more women went to work in Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s newly designed modern city , it was a booming industry. Rural wet nurses (ideally in their 20s, within good health, with strong teeth, and thick white milk) were regularly employed to nurse the children of both urban lower- and middle-class women and were one of the most prized domestic servants in the bourgeois home.

However , following French chemist Louis Pasteur’s scientific discoveries of how bacteria spread, as well as medical publications promoting the particular health-giving benefits of the mother’s milk, maternal nursing began in order to be favoured over wet nursing. Also, conservative Catholic and liberal political ideologies fused to be able to encourage breastfeeding as central to modern womanhood.

Breastfeeding was not a new common theme in Impressionism but its treatment by Degas, Renoir and Morisot gives a fascinating insight into some of typically the ways women who practised it were perceived.

1. At the Races within the Countryside by Edgar Degas (1869)

A painting of a woman breastfeeding in a carriage.
Edgar Degas’ painting focuses on wet-nursing among France’s wealthy. Wikimedia

In At the Competitions in this Countryside (1869) we see a wealthy family, often the picture of modern success, in a fancy carriage. The mother and the damp nurse (identified through her outfit plus exposed breast) are seated together while the sharply dressed father, and your bulldog (an image of modern domesticity) both gaze directly at the baby and breast.

As art critic Gal Ventura notes inside her encyclopaedic study associated with breastfeeding inside art, there are links here along with sexuality that draw connections between the exact wet nurse as well as the prostitute, a figure Degas often depicted. Both were working women who sold their own bodies, or rather their particular bodily functions, for profit to wealthy families. Although the cast nurse was closer for you to Madonna than a whore.

What Degas highlights here – via the convergence regarding the male gaze, the female body at work and the particular theme involving urban leisure – is the pervasive presence of recent capitalism in addition to exchange even within some sort of painting that will takes amusement as its ostensible focus.

2. Maternity simply by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1885)

The shift towards maternal nursing is seen throughout a series of works Renoir made in typically the 1880s connected with his future wife Aline nursing their very own first-born son, Pierre. Aline was a good seamstress from the countryside and so seeing the girl breastfeed has been less shocking to an uptight bourgeois audience.

A woman breastfeeds her child while sitting on a log.
Auguste Renoir’s Maternity (also known as The Nursing Child : Madame Renoir and the woman son, Pierre) sees your move away from wet-nursing. Wikimedia

In the first with this series called Maternity, Renoir shows Aline sitting on a fallen tree, very much looking like a peasant with a ruddy face in her straw hat and even dowdy clothes. She is also sexualised through her plump, protruding breasts and direct gaze.

Breasts, Azar writes , “are some scandal for the patriarchy because they disrupt this border between motherhood together with sexuality”.

Aline seems blissful, because does Pierre, but there is something off. Renoir’s association for his breastfeeding a baby spouse with the natural world is troublesome. The depiction echoes the claim made by simply the feminist Simone de Beauvoir found in The Second Sex about how under the patriarchy, through a fabulous woman’s ability to nursing and become a mother, “a woman is only an important female domesticated animal”. Her serene nature also suggests that breastfeeding is not a strain or “work”.

The particular Wet Nurse Angèle feeding Julie Manet by Berthe Morisot (1880)

A woman breastfeeds a child.
Berthe Morisot’s striking painting depicts another woman breastfeeding your ex child. Wikimedia

It’s around Berthe Morisot’s small painting The Wet Nurse Angèle feeding Julie Manet (1880), that the connection between art, work and additionally money becomes most apparent.

Painted in dazzling hues about white, pink and green, it reveals the blended figures in Morisot’s baby and the lady employed to help nurse the in the family home. The situation itself is radical ~ a female artist, rather than a male artist, painting the woman child her child, not out of nurturing instinct, but with regard to money. But it will be how often the picture is painted of which makes it so fascinating.

Exactly what shocks your viewer is usually not the exact naked breast, but the fierceness from the brushstrokes that cover the unfinished canvas, blending flesh, figure, dress not to mention background on thick, uneven strokes the fact that fire off in a multitude of directions. There is something hugely expressive about this painting that maybe only a mother can feel.

The physical frenzy of paint communicates manual labour. This is usually an angry painting about motherhood as well as the act associated with painting. It’s a painting about the particular hidden work in creating an artistic product and one where both the milk and the painting are, as feminist art historian Linda Nochlin first observed, “products being produced or even created regarding the market, intended for profit”.

Morisot exhibited more than any other impressionist. Dependent on her mother and your girlfriend in-laws, typically the Manets, selling her art was their only chance to have any kind of financial freedom. This would have been impossible without a new wet nurse and a supportive husband. Thankfully, for contemporary art, she had each.

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