Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions.1
This work was created fairly early in Picasso’s career, during what would come to be known as his blue period. At this time Picasso was living in poverty and struggling to survive as an artist. As he looked at the city life around him in Barcelona and Paris, he saw many unhappy and poor people who were outcasts from society. They became the subjects of his art, painted in a palette of blues, greens, and grays to add to the somber mood.
The woman depicted here is bent over her ironing. She uses a heavy, old-fashioned iron, which would require constant reheating at an open fireplace nearby. A bowl on the table holds water; beside it is a cloth for sprinkling water on the fabric as she irons. She is agonizingly thin and hunched over with the effort of placing pressure on the iron. Paintings of women ironing were not uncommon at the time, as more and more artists had begun to depict the working class. But unlike other variations on this theme, Woman Ironing presents an icon rather than a scene: Picasso shows us a single figure, focused on her task, against a background that is nearly erased.
Ironing and washing clothes in laundries was a common occupation of women in late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century Europe. It was a difficult job, physically demanding, performed in a hot, crowded room, and poorly paid. Picasso spent a number of years early in his career painting the poor, including hungry children, street musicians, and circus families. These paintings provide glimpses into the world of the impoverished more than one hundred years ago. Picasso may have felt that, as a poor artist, he was showing his own world. He may also have found suffering and endurance in the face of hardship to be inspiring. His good friend Jaime Sabartés once wrote, “Picasso believes that art emanates from sadness and pain.”2
Art historians suggest that Picasso was more interested in the romantic agony of this woman’s situation than in offering a social critique, believing that her situation, which she faces without complaint, ennobled her. Woman Ironing is sometimes compared with El Greco’s images of martyrs, with their elongated bodies and faces and clear outlines, in paintings Picasso first saw as a fourteen-year-old boy visiting the Museo del Prado in Madrid with his father.
- Pose like the woman in this painting. Hold your pose and notice where the tension is in your body. Describe your sensations.
- How might this woman feel? If she could speak, what might she tell you about her work? About her life? About her hopes for the future?
- There has been much speculation as to why Picasso so persistently painted in blue from 1901 to 1904. One theory is that he was simply too poor to buy a variety of colors, but it is more probable that he was using color to show emotion. Describe how Picasso’s use of color adds to the impact of this work.
- Woman Ironing
was made during an era of great social change: as a result of the
Industrial Revolution, people had moved to the cities in droves,
resulting in great poverty and a low standard of living. What types of
social changes are happening now, more than one hundred years later?
What type of person would you choose to represent these changes? Paint a
portrait or write a poem about this character, capturing their daily
the turn of the twentieth century approached, several artists explored
the theme of women ironing, including Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet.
Look at Degas’s Women Ironing (ca. 1884– 86)—you will be able to find a reproduction of it online—and compare and contrast it with Picasso’s interpretation.1
electric irons of today are very different from the iron in Picasso’s
time. Research how ironing was accomplished before electricity and
the 1880s in the United States, photographer Jacob Riis (1849–1914)
documented the plight of poor children, immigrants, and tenement
dwellers on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His book How the Other Half Lives
became a pivotal work that precipitated much-needed reforms. It is
still in print and also available on the Internet. Compare Picasso’s Woman Ironing with Riis’s photographs. Which images do you find most sympathetic? Why?