Dressing up as laundry maids

The Washerwomen of Fouesnant painted by Bouguereau in 1869The women doing their washing in the river (left) look the part. We can believe the artist had seen them at work somewhere in 19th century Brittany, even if he romanticised it a bit and chose a pretty young girl for the foreground.

Laundry Maid with lace cap and collar using box iron But some artists' models seem so elegant in their lacy maids' caps or frilled aprons that they are believed to be upper-class ladies trying out a new, cute look, like Marie-Antoinette, queen of France, famous for dressing up as a shepherdess.

Two laundry maids painted by Henry Morland are said to have been the 18th century London society beauties, Maria and Elizabeth Gunning, who married aristocrats and became the Countess of Coventry and the Duchess of Hamilton. One of the young women (right) is daintily using a box iron, while her sister (?) poses with cloth, soap and basin .      

May 2007              >> More on irons    

Antonia Fraser, in Marie Antoinette: The Journey , says the queen's costume in her model village at Versailles was just "white muslin topped by a straw hat". She considered this "sufficiently pastoral" - so no milk maid or shepherdess costumes. 
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The Burlington Magazine for April 1903 suggested that the ironing Miss Gunning was the future Countess of Coventry, Maria, while her sister Elizabeth was the one doing a little light washing in a companion painting. At the time the paintings were owned by London art dealer Asher Wertheimer. A brief article suggested that the "portraits of two famous beauties bear the same relation to real laundry maids as do Watteau's shepherdesses to their prototypes in real life."

More pictures of women washing

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