Some paintings have research files, others have grab-bags. We keep any and all correspondence and research notes on virtually all of our works of art, and they are a treasure trove of information. Sometimes. When the research goes well, the file can be thorough, cogent, and very helpful. When research is scarce, the file can be painfully thin. When research is scarce but opinions abound, watch out. Such is the case with this enigmatic painting in the Fenimore Art Museum collection.
It has for years been called simply “The Ironers.” Executed about 1845 (judging from the style of dresses and hairdos), the painting measures 30” x 41” and is oil on canvas. That is where consensus ends. Although the subject matter appears to be quite straightforward – a man overseeing four ladies ironing laundry on a large table – the range of theories is remarkable.
In the months after this painting appeared in the magazine “American Heritage” along with the rest of the Gunn Collection we acquired in 1960, several knowledgeable persons wrote to us claiming to know exactly what was going on in the work.
H. W. Kroeger felt that it was a commercial laundry, with linens on drying racks at the left, which were collected in a basket (at lower right) from which the ladies took their linens and ironed them on the table. Once ironed, the fabric was folded neatly on the smaller table at the far right. He did wonder where the source of heat for the irons came from, and whether the multiple doorways were cupboards.
Cecil D. Clayton agreed that it was a commercial laundry, and felt that the man was the owner or foreman checking a laundry list of customers’ complaints (he has a scroll of paper on the table in front of him), or that perhaps he was a customer checking his own list. This letter made me wonder why anyone in their right mind would commission a formal portrait of their business with the most prominent figure being an irate customer.
Mrs. George Legeza, Jr. was absolutely certain that the scene was painted immediately after the birth of a baby. The women (two matrons and two younger women) were pitching in to help with the new load of ironing, and the man was a doctor, about to sign the birth certificate in his right hand. She even knew exactly which of the doors in the background led to the baby’s room and which led to other upstairs bedrooms!
The file does include a most helpful letter from a previous owner of the painting, a George Livesay of Providence, Rhode Island, who sold the painting to the Gunns. He recalled that it had a molding at its base that seemed to indicate that it had been used as a trade sign for a commercial laundry.
Our former Director Lou Jones, a folklorist by trade, always favored the most outlandish explanations for anything. His favorite theory for this painting? To quote from his 1960 catalogue of the Gunn Collection: “this is a Mormon inventor of a new dickey who has married two sets of sisters and has them all out in the laundry proving the value of his latest creation.”
Unfortunately, he admits, “there isn’t a factual leg for this beautiful theory to stand on.”
Paul D'Ambrosio is President and CEO of the Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown, New York, and oversees one of the best folk art collections in the United States. He has organized exhibitions in the United States, Europe, and Japan. He is also Adjunct Professor of American Folk Art in the Cooperstown Graduate Program for Museum Studies and the author of numerous books and articles about American folk art.