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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The history of breastfeeding reveals uncomfortable truths about women, work and money. An unlikely place where the history of nursing is clearly visible is in impressionist paintings.

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

In the 19th century, wet nursing – where women were paid to nurse someone else’s child – was widespread practiced In Europe.

Wet nursing is an ancient practice, but in 19th century Paris, as more women went to work in Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s redesigned modern city, it was a thriving industry. Rural wet nurses (ideally in their 20s, in good health, with strong teeth and thick white milk) were regularly employed to care for the children of both urban and middle-class women and were one of the most valued domestic servants in bourgeois homes.

Following French chemist Louis Pasteur’s scientific discoveries of how bacteria spread, as well as medical publications promoting the health-giving benefits of breast milk, breast feeding began to be favored over wet breastfeeding. Also, conservative Catholic and liberal political ideologies coalesced to encourage breastfeeding as central to modern womanhood.

Breastfeeding was not a common theme in Impressionism, but its treatment by Degas, Renoir and Morisot provides a fascinating insight into some of the ways in which women who practiced it were perceived.

‘Running in the Country’ by Edgar Degas (1869)

In “At the Country Races” (1869) we see a wealthy family, the image of modern success, in a fancy carriage. The mother and the wet nurse (identified through her outfit and exposed breast) sit together, while the sharply dressed father and the bulldog (an image of modern domesticity) both stare directly at the baby and breast.

Edgar Degas' painting focuses on wet-nursing among France's wealthy.

Edgar Degas’ painting focuses on wet-nursing among France’s wealthy. Credit: From Wikimedia Commons

Like art critic Gal Ventura notes in her encyclopedic study of breastfeeding in art, there are connections here to sexuality, drawing connections between the wet nurse and the prostitute, a figure Degas often depicted. Both were working women who sold their bodies, or rather their bodily functions, for profit to wealthy families. Although the wet nurse was closer to Madonna than a whore.

What Degas highlights here—via the convergence of the male gaze, the female body at work, and the theme of urban leisure—is the pervasive presence of modern capitalism and exchange even within a painting that takes leisure as its ostensible focus.

‘Maternity’ by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1885)

The shift towards maternal care is seen in a series of works Renoir made in the 1880s of his future wife Aline, who was nursing their first-born son, Pierre. Aline was a seamstress from the country, so it was less shocking for an excited bourgeois audience to see her breastfeed.

In the first of this series called “Maternity”, Renoir shows Aline sitting on a fallen tree, looking very much like a peasant with a ruddy face in her straw hat and clothes. She is also sexualized through her full, protruding chest and direct gaze.

Auguste Renoir's "Maternity" (also known as "The foster child" — Madame Renoir and her son, Pierre) are seeing a movement away from wet care.

Auguste Renoir’s “Maternity” (also known as “The Nursing Child” – Madame Renoir and her son, Pierre) sees a move away from wet-nursing. Credit: From Wikimedia Commons

Breasts, Ventura writes“are a scandal to the patriarchy because they disrupt the line between motherhood and sexuality”.

Aline seems blissful, as does Pierre, but something is wrong. Renoir’s connection between his nursing spouse and the natural world is difficult. The depiction echoes the claim made by feminist Simone de Beauvoir in “The Other Sex” that under patriarchy, through a woman’s ability to nurse and become a mother, a woman “is only a female domestic animal”. Her calm nature also suggests that breastfeeding is not a strain or “work”.

‘The wet nurse Angèle feeds Julie Manet’ by Berthe Morisot (1880)

It is in Berthe Morisot’s small painting “The wet nurse Angèle feeds Julie Manet” (1880) that the connection between art, work and money becomes most evident.

Painted in dazzling shades of white, pink and green, it reveals the blended figures of Morisot’s baby and the woman employed to nurse her in the family home. The situation itself is radical – a female artist, rather than a male artist, paints a woman breastfeeding her child, not out of a nurturing instinct, but for money. But it is how the picture is painted that makes it so fascinating.

Berthe Morisot's striking painting depicts another woman breastfeeding her child.

Berthe Morisot’s striking painting depicts another woman breastfeeding her child. Credit: From Wikimedia Commons

What shocks the viewer is not the bare chest, but the harshness of the brushstrokes that cover the unfinished canvas, mixing flesh, figure, dress and background in thick, uneven strokes that fire off in a multitude of directions. There is something enormously expressive about this painting that perhaps only a mother can feel.

The physical frenzy of the paint communicates manual work. This is an angry painting about motherhood and the act of painting. It is a painting about the hidden work of creating an artistic product and one where both the milk and the painting are, as the feminist art historian Linda Nochlin first observed“products that are produced or created for the market, for profit”.

Morisot exhibited more than any other impressionist. Dependent on her mother and her in-laws, the Manets, selling her art was her only chance for any kind of financial freedom. This would have been impossible without a wet nurse and a supportive husband. Fortunately, for modern art, she had both.

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