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Reyer and the Washer Woman
Edgar Degas (French, 1834 - 1917)
52.1 x 69.9 cm (20 1/2 x 27 1/2 in.)
Across two pages of his sketchbook, Edgar Degas drew the composer Ernest Reyer sitting at a long table among four washerwomen. The numerous gestures that revealed an individual's class and work fascinated Degas, and he focused on the laundresses' expressive faces and bodies. One woman rests her head on her hand, with a bottle and a half-empty glass beside her, her eyes closed either in exhaustion or an alcoholic stupor. The other two lean forward, absorbed in the developing relationship between the composer and the woman ironing. Reyer's intense gaze contrasts sharply with the studied indifference of the object of his attention.
At the top of the page, Degas set the stage for the scene: "For a long time, Reyer has been offering a third-floor box [the cheapest theater box] to a washerwoman." On the right Reyer sheepishly offers a piece of paper to a washerwoman, who holds an iron close to her cheek in order to judge its heat. There may be a sexual inference in Reyer's offer, especially since washerwomen in the 1800s often turned to prostitution to supplement their low incomes.