This enchanting drawing was numbered by Goya himself as sheet 37 of an unbound series of pages, commonly called Album E or the Black Border Album owing to the single- or double-ink border that makes its sheets immediately recognizable.
In 1796, at the age of fifty, Goya began filling pages of albums with drawings of people observed in various attitudes and occupied in various ways, singly or in groups. He was to maintain this practice until the end of his life, some thirty years later. In all he created eight albums of varying number of pages and size which originally contained some 550 drawings. The drawings are not preparatory studies for pictures or prints, although some images from Album A and B, drawn in the mid 1790s, were the starting point for prints in his famous Caprichos published in 1799. Drawing as a preliminary to painting was of no interest to Goya. He drew directly onto the canvas with his brush. Eleanor Sayre - the first scholar to describe and define the characteristics of the eight albums, labelling them with the letters A to H - stated that the albums are 'not notebooks containing a casual assembly of portrait heads, drapery studies and composition sketches. Neither were they any longer sketchbooks preserving the intermittent record of places he saw and picturesque figures which might be used again. They had been transmuted by him into journals - drawn not written - whose pictorial entries of varying length pertained predominantly to what Goya thought rather than what he saw' ('An Old Man Writing. A Study of Goya's Albums', Boston Museum Bulletin, LVI, 1958, p. 120). The drawings in the albums show Goya's 'intuitive grasp of the human condition [that] was based on observation but not limited by it or by convention or by canons of taste and tradition... Human passions, human desires, human fears are his unique concern expressed through a vast range of subjects, from mundane aspects of everyday reality to the most profoundly spiritual themes' (J. Wilson-Bareau, Goya: Drawings from his Private Albums, exhib. cat., London, Hayward Gallery, 2001, p. 23; this was the first exhibition solely dedicated to this fascinating aspect of Goya's work).
Drawings from Album E - 42 are known today and the highest number borne by one of them is '50' - are executed in a fine indian ink on Netherlandish paper from the famed Honig & Zoonen firm, making it possible to date them after the end of the Peninsular War in 1814. J. Wilson-Bareau has detected connections with Goya's early attempts at lithography, with which he first experimented in 1819. These are the largest sheets in any of the albums (approximately 27 x 19 cm. when untrimmed), and are also arguably the most finished and executed with the most care. They have sometimes been compared to little paintings, an impression reinforced by the black borders. They are all executed with the brush and indian ink, which varies from translucent or pale grey washes of diluted ink to an intense, almost dry pure black. The artist sometimes used a scraper - probably an etcher's tool, a knife or a razor - to lighten certain areas, to remove a patch of wash or to modify an element in the drawing. This is clearly noticeable in Hutiles trabajos, where Goya erased a piece of cloth that the kneeling woman on the left originally held above her washboard, and reworked some areas, such as the fluttering skirt of the woman hanging out the washing, or the foreground itself, giving these a richness of texture difficult to achieve with the brush alone, and which resembles the effect of black chalk.
The human condition - real and imagined, physical and mental - was Goya's constant obsession and is the essential subject of the drawings in Album E. They depict with realism, yet with great subtlety, ordinary people in a variety of occupations. In Hutiles trabajos or Useful work, two women kneel by the water's edge, scrubbing clothes while they gossip. A third stands on tiptoe, hanging laundered garments on the branch of an unseen tree. The perspective is masterfully suggested by articulating the composition with a diagonal, set out along three receding planes. Goya's concentration on the individuals he depicts, more marked than in the earlier albums, is enhanced by the general absence of specific settings. In Hutiles trabajos, as is often the case with drawings from Album E, the landscape is reduced to a minimum and the space is created above all by the shadows.
The figures are depicted against an empty background, broken only by the intrusion of the branch, rendered with a very light grey wash. Although relatively simple the composition is executed with great care and features a virtuoso play of different shades of wash and scraping of the surfaces to create contrasts and volume. The controlled freedom with which Goya shaped the suggestive forms of his figures further reinforces their vitality, and looks back to the windswept girls with their bundles of washing, out on a 'Bad night' in plate 36 of Los Caprichos, his boldly etched and aquatinted print of some twenty years earlier.
In Album E, Hutiles trabajos was preceded by drawing no. 36, titled Quien bencera? No visible (Who will win ? One cannot tell), which shows two women wrestling (Gassier 1973, no. 131, recently acquired by the Prado; No solo Goya, Adquisiciones para el Gabinete de Dibujos y Estampas del Museo del Prado, 1997-2010, exhib. cat., Madrid, 2011 [online edition only], no. 29). This opposition of subjects - women working contentedly together and women apparently fighting - may have been intentional, since the albums often show sequences of similar or contrasting scenes. Goya had treated this theme of washerwomen in one of his twelve tapestry cartoons of 1780 for the ante-chamber of the Princes of Asturias in the Pardo Palace (the tapestry cartoon is now in the Prado; Fig. 1), but with an unusual twist: almost all the young women are at rest while the washing hangs on a line tied to a tree trunk. Hutiles trabajos is one of the rare instances of an album drawing that finds a direct echo in a painting: the kneeling woman in the foreground appears in reverse in the celebrated Woman reading a letter, also called Les jeunes in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille (Fig. 2) .
The albums, dismembered and with their pages remounted in large volumes by Goya's son, remained in the family until Javier's death in 1854 (for the complete history of the albums, see J. Wilson-Bareau's introduction, pp. 24-5, to her 2001 exhibition, op. cit). Some time after this date, control of the drawings was ceded by the artist's grandson Mariano to the court painter Federico de Madrazo y Kuntz (1815-1894). Madrazo removed them from Javier's volumes, had most of them remounted on sheets of pink paper (remains of which can still be seen on the verso of the present drawing) some time between 1862 and 1866, and created four new bound volumes in which he rearranged the order of the drawings, renumbering most of them. One of these volumes was sold in 1866 to the Museo del Trinidad (now in the Prado). Of the three that Madrazo kept for himself, two (containing a total of 105 drawings) were dismembered and sold at auction at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris on the afternoon of 2 April 1877. The remaining volume of 45 drawings, prefaced by Goya's famous self-portrait, passed to Madrazo's daughter and was acquired, intact in its binding, by the Metropolitan Museum in 1935. The present sheet was part of a small group of drawings (often of outstanding quality) that was set aside, before or after mounting on pink paper, from the three bound volumes. Madrazo marked many of them with tiny letters or symbols in pen and ink in the upper right corner of the sheets (here an 'm'), and their subsequent provenance suggests that they were all intended as gifts to friends and colleagues. The recipient of this drawing remains unknown at present, as does the later history of the sheet before it was purchased around 1930 at the Hôtel Drouot by Jean Fribourg, a distinguished collector with many interests. A part of his collection of Chinese prints, an area on which he published, is now in the Musée Guimet, Paris. In his great catalogue of Goya's album drawings (1973), Pierre Gassier credited Jean Fribourg, the then owner of Hutiles trabajos, with having encouraged him to publish his research on the Black Border Album, a project that ultimately led him to undertake his book. As a mark of friendship, as much as a testament to the superb quality of the present drawing, Gassier chose to illustrate it on the cover (Fig. 3) of the French edition of the book, a Useful Work indeed...