What these impressionist paintings reveal about breastfeeding in the 19th century

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Written by Claire Moran, Queen’s University Belfast

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Breastfeeding history reveals uncomfortable truths about women, work, and money. One place where the history of nursing is hard to see is in Impressionist paintings.

Although the art of Manet and his followers is best known for its sunny landscapes and leisurely Parisian scenes, many of these paintings tell complex human stories. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot describe breastfeeding as the perfect example of a woman’s invisible labor process.

In the 19th century, breastfeeding jobs – where women were paid to care for other people’s children – were widespread. practice in Europe.

Breastfeeding is an age-old practice, but in 19th-century Paris, as many women went to work in Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s newly designed modern city, it was a booming industry. Rural nurses (ideally in their 20s, in good health, strong teeth and thick white milk) are regularly employed to care for the children of both urban middle- and lower-class women and are one of them. domestic workers are the most appreciated in the bourgeoisie. Home page.

However, after the scientific discoveries of French chemist Louis Pasteur about how bacteria spread, as well as medical publications promoting the health benefits of breast milk, breastfeeding began. head is preferred over wet nursing. In addition, conservative Catholic and liberal political ideologies have merged to promote breastfeeding as a focus for modern women.

Breastfeeding was not a popular topic among Impressionists, but Degas, Renoir, and Morisot’s treatment offers a fascinating insight into some of the ways real women see real women. practice it.

‘At the Country Races’ by Edgar Degas (1869)

In “At the Races in the Countryside” (1869), we see a wealthy family, the picture of modern-day success, in a luxurious carriage. The mother and the nanny (identified by her outfit and exposed breasts) sit together while the well-dressed father and the bulldog (an image of modern domestication) both look on. directly at the baby and the mother’s breast.

Edgar Degas' painting focuses on breastfeeding among the rich in France.

Edgar Degas’ painting focuses on breastfeeding among the rich in France. Credit: From Wikimedia Commons

As art critic Gal Ventura Note In her encyclopedic study of breastfeeding in art, here are the connections to sex that make up the connection between nannies and prostitutes, a character Degas often portrays. Both were working women who sold their bodies, or rather their bodily functions, to profit rich families. Although the wet nurse was closer to Madonna than a whore.

What Degas highlights here – through the convergence of the male gaze, the female body at work, and the theme of urban recreation – is the ubiquitous presence of modern capitalism. and exchange even in a picture that has entertainment as its apparent focus.

‘Motherhood’ by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1885)

The shift toward maternal care was reflected in a series of works Renoir made in the 1880s about his future wife Aline nursing their first son, Pierre. Aline was a country seamstress so seeing her breastfeeding was less of a shock to hardline bourgeois audiences.

In the first installment of this series titled “Motherhood,” Renoir shows Aline sitting on a fallen tree, looking a lot like a rosy-faced farmer in a straw hat and sloppy clothes. She is also sexed through her full, protruding breasts and direct gaze.

by Auguste Renoir "maternity" (also known as "Child nursing" — Mrs. Renoir and her son, Pierre) see the replacement of breastfeeding with the wet method.

Auguste Renoir’s “Motherhood” (also known as “The Breastfeeding Child” – Mrs. Renoir and her son, Pierre) noticed a shift away from wet breastfeeding. Credit: From Wikimedia Commons

Breasts, Ventura write“are a scandal for patriarchy because they break the line between motherhood and sex”.

Aline seemed happy, so was Pierre, but something was wrong. Renoir’s association of his breastfeeding mate with the natural world is troubling. The description echoes feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s statement in “The Second Sex” that under the patriarchy, through a woman’s ability to breastfeed and become a mother, “women are just a domesticated female animal”. Her serene nature also shows that breastfeeding is not a stress or “work”.

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

It is in Berthe Morisot’s small painting “Nurse Angèle Feeding Julie Manet” (1880) that the connection between art, work and money becomes most apparent.

Painted in vibrant whites, pinks and greens, it shows the mixed shapes of Morisot’s baby and the woman hired to care for him in the family home. The situation itself is radical – a female artist, not a male artist, paints a woman breastfeeding, not for the sake of nurturing instinct but for money. But it’s the way the picture is drawn that makes it so appealing.

Berthe Morisot's striking painting depicting another woman breastfeeding.

Berthe Morisot’s striking painting depicting another woman breastfeeding. Credit: From Wikimedia Commons

What amazes the viewer is not the bare breasts, but rather the ferocity of the brushstrokes that cover the unfinished canvas, blending flesh, figure, clothing, and background into thick, irregular strokes. , shoot out in many directions. There is something extremely expressive about this painting that perhaps only a mother could sense.

The physical frenzy of paint conveys manual labor. This is an angry picture of motherhood and the act of painting. It is a picture of the work hidden in creating an art product and one that has both milk and painting, as feminist art historian Linda Nochlin foresaw. Was observed“products made or made for the market, for profit”.

Morisot embodies more than any other impressionist school. Dependent on her mother and in-laws Manets, selling artwork was her only chance at financial freedom. This would not have been possible without a wet nurse and a supportive husband. Thankfully, for modern art, she has both.


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