What these Impressionist paintings reveal about breastfeeding in the 19th century – CNN

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Written by Claire Moran, Queen’s University Belfast

The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writers. CNN is showcasing the particular work associated with The Conversation , a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary. The content is produced solely by The Discussion.

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

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

In the 19th hundred years, wet-nursing — where women were paid to nurse someone else’s child — was widely practiced within 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 the booming industry. Rural wet nurses (ideally in their 20s, in good health, along 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 particular bourgeois home.

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

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

‘At the particular Races within the Countryside’ by Edgar Degas (1869)

Within “At the Races within the Countryside” (1869) we see a wealthy family, the picture of contemporary success, in a fancy carriage. The mother and the particular wet health professional (identified through her outfit and exposed breast) are seated together while the sharply dressed father, and the bulldog (an image of modern domesticity) each gaze directly at the baby and breast.

Edgar Degas' painting focuses on wet-nursing among France's wealthy.

Edgar Degas’ painting focuses on wet-nursing among France’s wealthy. Credit: From Wikimedia Commons

As art critic Gal Ventura notes within her encyclopaedic study associated with breastfeeding in art, there are links here with sexuality that draw connections between the wet doctor and the particular prostitute, a figure Degas often depicted. Both had been working ladies who sold their bodies, or rather their bodily functions, for profit in order to wealthy families. Although the moist nurse was closer to Madonna than a whore.

Exactly what Degas highlights here — via the convergence of the male gaze, the female body at work and the particular theme associated with urban amusement — is definitely the pervasive presence of modern capitalism plus exchange even within the painting that takes leisure time as its ostensible focus.

‘Maternity’ by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1885)

The shift towards maternal nursing can be seen in a series of works Renoir made in the 1880s associated with his future wife Aline nursing their own first-born son, Pierre. Aline was a seamstress from the countryside and so seeing her breastfeed was less shocking to an uptight bourgeois audience.

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

Auguste Renoir's "Maternity" (also known as "The Nursing Child" — Madame Renoir and her son, Pierre) sees a move away from wet-nursing.

Auguste Renoir’s “Maternity” (also known as “The Nursing Child” — Madame Renoir and her son, Pierre) sees a move away from wet-nursing. Credit score: Through Wikimedia Commons

Breasts, Ventura writes , “are a scandal for the patriarchy because they disrupt the border between motherhood and sexuality”.

Aline seems blissful, since does Pierre, but there is something off. Renoir’s association of their breastfeeding spouse with the particular natural world is troublesome. The depiction echoes the claim made by the feminist Simone de Beauvoir within “The Second Sex” about how under the particular patriarchy, via a woman’s ability in order to breastfeeding plus become the mother, “a woman is only a female domesticated animal”. Her serene nature also suggests that breastfeeding is not a strain or even “work”.

‘The Wet Nurse Angèle feeding Julie Manet’ simply by Berthe Morisot (1880)

It’s in Berthe Morisot’s small painting “The Damp Nurse Angèle feeding Jules Manet” (1880), that the connection among art, function and cash becomes most apparent.

Painted in dazzling hues of white, pink and green, it reveals the blended figures associated with Morisot’s baby as well as the woman employed to nurse the girl in the family members home. The situation itself is certainly radical — a woman artist, rather than the male artist, painting a woman breastfeeding her child, not out of nurturing instinct, but with regard to money. But it is how the particular picture will be painted that will makes it so fascinating.

Berthe Morisot's striking painting depicts another woman breastfeeding her child.

Berthe Morisot’s striking painting depicts another lady breastfeeding her child. Credit: From Wikimedia Commons

What shocks the viewer is usually not the particular naked breast, but the fierceness of the brushstrokes that cover the unfinished canvas, blending flesh, figure, dress and background within thick, uneven strokes that fire away in a multitude of directions. There is something hugely expressive about this painting that will maybe only a mother can feel.

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

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

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