Three impressionist paintings that provide insight into the complicated history of breastfeeding in the 19th century

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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 in impressionist paintings.

Although the art of Manet and his followers is best known for his 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 work.

In the 19th century, breastfeeding – where women were paid to breastfeed someone else’s child – was widely practiced in Europe.

Breastfeeding is an age-old practice, but in 19th-century Paris, as more and more women went to work at Georges-Eugène Haussmann newly designed modern cityit was a booming industry. Rural nannies (ideally in their twenties, in good health, with strong teeth and thick white milk) were regularly employed to nurse the children of lower and middle class urban women and were one of the most prized servants in the middle class household .

However, following the French chemist The scientific discoveries of Louis Pasteur how bacteria spread, as well as medical publications promoting the health benefits of breast milk, breastfeeding began to be preferred over breastfeeding. Additionally, conservative Catholic and liberal political ideologies have coalesced to encourage breastfeeding at the center of modern womanhood.

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

1. At the races in the countryside by Edgar Degas (1869)

Edgar Degas’ painting focuses on breastfeeding among the wealthy of France.
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In At Races in the Country (1869), we see a wealthy family, the image of modern success, in a luxury car. The mother and nurse (identified by her attire and exposed breast) sit together while the well-dressed father and bulldog (an image of modern domesticity) stare directly at the baby and breast.

As art critic Gal Ventura Remarks in his encyclopaedic study of breastfeeding in art, there are links to sexuality here that establish links between the wet nurse and the prostitute, a figure often depicted by Degas. Both were working women who sold their bodies, or rather their bodily functions, for the benefit of wealthy families. Even though the nanny was closer to Madonna than a whore.

What Degas highlights here – through the convergence of the male gaze, the female body at work and the theme of urban leisure – is the omnipresent presence of modern capitalism and exchange even in a painting that takes on the leisure as its ostensible centre.

2. Maternity by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1885)

The turn to breastfeeding can be seen in a series of works Renoir made in the 1880s about his future wife Aline breastfeeding their eldest son, Pierre. Aline was a country seamstress, so seeing her breastfeeding was less shocking to a stuck-up bourgeois audience.

A woman breastfeeds her child sitting on a log.
Auguste Renoir’s Maternity (also known as The Nursing Child – Madame Renoir and Her Son, Pierre) sees a move away from breastfeeding.
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In the first of this series titled Maternity, Renoir shows Aline sitting on a fallen tree, looking very much like a peasant woman with a ruddy face in her straw hat and old-fashioned clothes. She is also sexualized through her plump, protruding chest and direct gaze.

Boobs, Ventura writes“are an outrage to the patriarchy because they disrupt the boundary between motherhood and sexuality.”

Aline seems happy, just like Pierre, but there is something wrong. Renoir’s association of his nursing wife with the natural world is awkward. The representation echoes the affirmation of the feminist Simone de Beauvoir in The second sex how under patriarchy, thanks to a woman’s ability to breastfeed and become a mother, “a woman is only a domesticated female animal”. Her serene nature also suggests that breastfeeding is not a compulsion or a “work”.

The nurse Angèle feeding Julie Manet by Berthe Morisot (1880)

A woman breastfeeds a child.
Berthe Morisot’s striking painting depicts another woman breastfeeding her child.
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It is in Berthe Morisot’s small painting The Nurse Angèle feeding Julie Manet (1880) that the link between art, work and money becomes most apparent.

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

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

The physical frenzy of painting communicates manual labor. It’s an angry painting about motherhood and the act of painting. It is a painting about the hidden work in the creation of an artistic product and where milk and paint are, like feminist art historian Linda Nochlin observed for the first time, “products being made or created for the market, for profit”.

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

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