Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ironing Out a Mystery

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.”


  1. It occurs to me that these women are awfully well dressed and well coiffed for the task they are engaged in. Additionally - there is no heat source for the irons. I buy the trade sign story. Who would want to actually "know" that a bunch of sweaty women were ironing their clean clothes? Since I see primarily male garments in the painting, maybe men sending their laundry out in the 1840s preferred the "Martha Stewart" fantasy for their freshly pressed clothes.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Erin. I think the trade sign theory is the best bet too. Your observation that you see men's garments in the painting reminded me of something I probably should have included in the post. The painting is attributed on stylistic grounds to Sturtevant J. Hamblin, a portrait painter from Maine who worked mainly in the Boston area. Like many portraitists of his day, he thrived for only a few years after the daguerreotype became popular in the 1840s. Guess what line of work he was in by 1856? "Men's Furnishings." It's tempting to think that maybe he painted his own trade sign.

  3. I kind of like the dickey inventor theory myself although the idea of a trade sign featuring an irate customer has a certain charm.
    I do think that it being a trade sign for a laundry makes the most sense, explaining the well dressed appearance of the ironers and the lack of a heat source.
    Interesting, as always...

  4. Let's just go with the dickey theory and be done with it :-)

  5. It looks as though this may have been a family business with the larger forward woman in blue being the wife and the two youngest appearing girls in orange being daughters as well as the girl in yellow. Though she may be a different family
    member, like a sister to the wife or the man. Their nice dresses and the difference in hairdos giving me these ideas.


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