Women, Sewing and Art

We had some family in from out of town this week, and a day-long trip to the Art Institute of Chicago was on the agenda.

Let me start by saying that I checked with the information desk and they had no problem with me taking a few pics and posting them to a blog.  So that’s what I did.

As you know, the Art Institute is an overwhelming and inspiring experience. After a bit of roaming, I came across a painting of a woman sewing. On a whim, I took a picture.

(Just as an aside, I hate when I see people running up to a painting and taking a picture.  That is not how it is meant to be enjoyed. Look at it. Study the brush strokes. Discover the color palette. Contemplate it. Enjoy it. But whatever you do, don’t run up and take a picture and then run to the next.  That’s silly.  Lecture over.)

That said, I decided to record what I could of women sewing.  A few samples:

Renoir was the first I happened to see. It’s lovely…with such movement.  I did, however, study her hands.  What was she sewing that was so bunched up?  That’s not really how one would hold something for embroidery or detailed stitching.  Though her right hand is perfectly positioned to pull a needle through the fabric, her left is a bit awkward.  The white lace near her left arm is, I suspect, entirely an afterthought.  Go ahead, hold your finger over that piece of white lace. The whole painting recedes into mid-tones. While it is still gorgeous, it lacks enough contrast to draw your eye somewhere.  With that touch of white, your eyes go directly to her work and her hands, and it even lights up her face.

This one is done by Camille Pissarro around 1895.  Titled “Woman Mending.”  I studied her hands once again.  She might very well be sewing.  Or she might actually be knitting in some way.  Her project is rather amorphous.  Yet, I recognize her expression.  I have the same one when I’m trying to figure out what I did wrong.  After these two paintings, I started to wonder if male painters truly understood in any way how women work. They recognize that women are doing SOMETHING with fabric or yarn. The detail is so precise in every other aspect…down to the carvings on the leg of the table.  But what this woman is actually doing?  Based on this painting, it’s a mystery.

Ahh. Diego Rivera, 1936.  The Weaver.  As we move into the 1900’s, we see that women’s work becomes a bit more of a fascination.  It’s not just pretty things in a young woman’s hand, but a skill, a craft.  He even pays homage to her by including the tools of her trade. He admired this woman, I’m sure of it.

This last one I saw was from the 1800’s, St. Rose of Lima. She was a patron saint of the Dominicans, and the story says that she embroidered to raise money for her family and for the poor. In this painting, she is creating the symbol for Christ. (This pic is taken from a pamphlet I brought home from the museum.) I love that her work is clearly shown, and that her sewing was her employment.

I hope you enjoyed this little jaunt through the Art Institute. If, like me, you haven’t been there in over 20 years, I encourage you to visit again with new eyes.  While you’ll see plenty of women as subjects — in portraits, as madonnas and mothers, lovers and muses — these are the women I found that had a project. A purpose.

A reason to create.


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